Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

On a Wing and a Prayer: Trump in Israel

Binyamin Rose

Will Trump’s brand of “principled realism” take off?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

 Mishpacha image

RELIGIOUS ELEMENT “The fact that the president understands there is a religious element here, and that he’s not ashamed to talk about it, to deal with it and cope with it, is very important,” says Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Yaakov Amidror (Photos: AFP/Imagebank, Flash90)

D onald Trump looked out of his element, surrounded by hundreds of swashbuckling young Saudi Arabians brandishing swords during a 12-minute ceremonial ardah, or sword dance. This was the same Donald Trump whose acceptance speech at the Republican convention included the words: “We are going to defeat the barbarians of ISIS and we are going to defeat them fast.” And here he was, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, one of the grand capitals of the global jihad movement, sword in hand, trying to get with the rhythm.

Other members of the Trump entourage displayed a range of reactions. The first lady, Melania, tried valiantly to conceal her discomfort. Ivanka Trump got a kick out of the spectacle, chief of staff Reince Priebus wore a “get me out of here fast” look, while Steve Bannon, whose cultural tolerance has been brought into question by some, kept a poker face.

The glittery reception was equally disconcerting for Israeli officials, who felt forced to play second fiddle to Saudi Arabia on the first two days of President Trump’s inaugural foreign tour. Israelis suffer from chronic insecurity over their relationship with Uncle Sam. The ten-year, $350 billion armaments and commercial trade deal that Trump swung with Saudi King Salman — vastly dwarfing Israel’s annual $3.8 billion military package that comes with a lot of strings attached — sent jitters through a nervous Israeli government bickering over the details of Trump’s visit.

Yet a lot of that tension melted away on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, when President Trump and the first lady exited Air Force One to an Israeli honor guard and reception line that included men wearing suits and ties like Trump does, and not kaffiyehs.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s greeting was effusive: “Welcome, our good friend.” In his prepared statement, Netanyahu took the edge off the concern that Trump got too chummy with the House of Saud, noting: “Never before has the first foreign trip of a president been to Israel. Thank you, Mr. President, for your powerful expression of support for Israel.”

Following a brief helicopter trip to President Reuven Rivlin’s residence in Jerusalem, Trump commented on his Saudi visit: “They say there’s never been anything like it ever before. It was a coming together, and now being here today in Israel is very special.”

Noting that fear of Iran has led to some a change of sentiment toward Israel among some Arab nations, Trump added: “That is a real positive, and we are really happy about that.”

Walled In

Even though Israel was the second stop on Trump’s itinerary, his timing was ideal, coming on the eve of Yom Yerushalayim, made more special this year because it marks the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem during the June 1967 Six Day War. Yom Yerushalayim always draws big crowds to the city, and preparations for the array of jubilee celebrations got underway alongside security arrangements for the presidential visit.

President Trump did not keep his campaign promise by announcing that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

It might be called Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), but most residents of the capital steeled themselves for a challenging week, replete with road closures and disruption to public transportation. Already on Sunday afternoon, the day before Trump’s arrival, police fanned out throughout the city center to secure the streets and keep traffic moving. It was a futile task on Jerusalem’s narrow, overcrowded roads. As traffic came to a standstill, people jumped off buses long before reaching their destinations and hoofed it the rest of the way.

Sunday night, most streets around the perimeter of the Old City were closed entirely for a light show, which bathed the Old City’s walls in Israel’s national colors of blue and white.

On Monday, before the presidential visit to the Kosel, large swaths of the Old City approaches to Har Habayis were declared off-limits to pedestrians, while Shabak and Secret Service agents were deployed to add an extra layer of security.

It seems that President Trump’s campaign promise to build a big beautiful wall between the US and Mexico will fall by the wayside, but Israeli authorities accommodated the first-ever visit by a sitting president to the Kosel by constructing a tall wall along the men’s section of the lower Kosel plaza, covered with thick mesh. A large white tent was erected to provide both security and privacy for the presidential party.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rav of the Kosel, accompanied Trump, as he does with all diplomatic visitors to the Western Wall. Prime Minister Netanyahu had hoped to join Trump, but the president demurred, causing a bit of controversy that threatened to mar the visit.

Eventually, Netanyahu dropped his insistence — probably a wise move, considering that for President Trump, basking in the limelight is a solitary experience. Netanyahu side-by-side with Trump at the Kosel would have made the president’s visit there a political one, not a religious or personal one, which would have implied de facto recognition that the Kosel is part of Jerusalem, and thus part of Israel. The US still does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and officially adheres to the spirit of the 1947 UN resolution designating Jerusalem as an international city.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who also delivered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration, rejected the idea that Trump’s own insistence on going it alone implied that the president agrees with the UN position on Jerusalem.

“I have every confidence that President Trump will not be fooled by this nonsense,” Rabbi Hier said. “I would say very clearly, given the 2,000-year history of Jewish persecution, the Inquisition, pogroms, and the Holocaust, and the fact that for most of those 2,000 years we were denied access to the Kosel, it would be sheer fantasy for any diplomat to float this idea of [permanently] internationalizing the Old City.”

Perhaps the bigger setback for Netanyahu was that on this visit, President Trump did not keep his campaign promise by announcing that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

This was also a disappointment to Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and Republican presidential candidate, who spoke to Mishpacha by phone during his visit to Jerusalem for Yom Yerushalayim.

Huckabee said he discussed the embassy issue with both the president and Vice President Pence within the last two weeks. Saying it would be inappropriate to divulge the contents of those conversations, Huckabee said he reiterated that the embassy relocation is both a commitment Congress made when it passed its original resolution on the topic in 1995, as well as a Trump campaign promise. Huckabee said the foot-dragging is causing anger among his constituents in the US.

“Israel is an issue for evangelical Christians that is virtually equal to any other issue of great importance, including abortion,” Huckabee said. “Evangelicals feel very strongly that it would be very detrimental if it appears the administration is walking back its commitment and promise.”

Overall, Huckabee said, Trump’s trip played well with the evangelical community.

“People appreciated both his candor and clarity, plus the fact that he was treated so respectfully. Much more so than Obama, which shows that the leaders of the Arab world respect strength, not weakness,” Huckabee added.

Zero Tolerance for Extremism

But for all the pomp and circumstance, the underlying concept of the Trump administration’s vision for the Middle East — and the reason he chose Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Vatican City — is to enlist the caretakers of the historic capital cities of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in a joint effort to replace extremism with tolerance.

Saudi Arabia drew mixed reviews in this regard, allowing in some but not all Jewish reporters requesting access to the country. The Saudis had no choice when it came to Trump’s top Jewish advisor — his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — and Jason Greenblatt, his special representative for international negotiations.

Greenblatt spent Shabbos in his hotel room, feasting on rice crackers, peanut butter, and fruit. “Shabbat was quiet and contemplative, largely spent by me thinking about the important goals the President is trying to achieve on this trip including revitalizing our alliances and transmitting a message of unity to Jews, Christians and Muslims,” Greenblatt said in e-mail correspondence with Mishpacha.

Israeli officials take a positive view of the initiative; for one, because it lends support to their contention that Israel has been the only ruling power in the Holy Land to serve as an impartial caretaker of the holy sites of all religions, and because a focus on solving religious conflict dispels the notion that the Arab-Israeli dispute is a territorial conflict to be solved by taking a carving knife to the country’s heartland.

“The fact that the president understands there is a religious element here, and that he’s not ashamed to talk about it, to deal with it and cope with it, is very important,” said Major-General (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, speaking on a conference call in Jerusalem with the foreign press. “But I’m not naive. I don’t see peace coming here tomorrow morning.”

Neither does the president.

In his speech Sunday to more than 50 leaders of Arab countries that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman assembled in Riyadh, Trump unfurled the first signs of what might be called a “Trump Doctrine” in the Middle East.

“We are adopting a principled realism, rooted in common values and shared interests,” the president said. “We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

This would be a marked departure from the George W. Bush era of trying to export democracies to the theocracies, kingdoms, or feudal clans that rule the Arab world. Beyond the cultural divide, American-style democracy, gripped by years of political paralysis and growing polarization, is hardly a hot export item in today’s world.

However, not everyone is ready to sign on to the Trump Doctrine.

Florida senator Marco Rubio, who briefly challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination last year, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Trump’s line about not being here to lecture is not one that he would have delivered. “It’s in our national security interest to advocate for democracy and freedom and human rights, now, with a recognition that you may not get it overnight,” Rubio said.

And in an op-ed piece in National Review Online, neocon commentator Daniel Pipes also leveled critique at parts of Trump’s speech.

“I bristled at Trump calling Saudi Arabia ‘sacred land,’ ” wrote Pipes. “I gagged on the warm praise for King Salman, someone implicated in contributing tens of millions of US dollars during the 1990s to finance jihadi violence in Bosnia and Pakistan.”

Pipes did praise Trump’s speech for signaling a major shift in the right direction from the Obama years, particularly concerning Iran and Islam. “Most important is Trump’s willingness to point to the ideology of Islamism as the enemy,” Pipes wrote.

Overall, the first few days of Trump’s overseas visit went without a major glitch.

Trump stayed at arm’s-length from the White House press corps, and kept his itchy Twitter fingers to a bare minimum, mostly to retweet accolades and compliments to his hosts.

The more the president lowers his social media profile, and shows restraint in the face of the criticism that shadows every politician, the faster he will have the chance to establish credibility as a world leader.

This is especially crucial for Trump, who needs a few wins in road games before he returns home to Washington. Next week, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hear testimony from James Comey, the man Trump fired as FBI director. Trump will also need to steel himself for the start of the special prosecutor’s investigation into his alleged Russian ties.

After Washington gets back to work following next Monday’s Memorial Day holiday, all the positive talk about Saudi Arabia, Israel, and retooling NATO will quickly shift back to the domestic woes Trump left behind before the wheels went up on Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, whisking him to the Middle East.

This article was contributed to by reporting from Tzippy Yarom, Jerusalem; Yisroel Besser; Omri Nahmias, Washington, D.C.; and Jacob Kornbluh, also the political writer for Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 661.

Related Stories


Ayol Samuels

Abe hadn’t spoken of his ultra-Orthodox roots for decades, but dementia changed everything

A Few Minutes with Oded Revivi

Binyamin Rose

Mishpacha speaks with mayor of Efrat and chief foreign envoy for the Yesha Council

On Site: Playground of Glitter and Gold

Eli Cobin

In a country of unrestrained opulence and unimaginable wealth, would we find anything money can’t bu...

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

No Misunderstandings
Rabbi Moshe Grylak Hashem revealed the secret of a balanced life
What Was the Court’s Rush?
Yonoson Rosenblum The Democratic Party’s descent into madness
Survey? Oy Vey
Eytan Kobre How could YAFFED promote such a farce?
Filling the Void
Rabbi Henoch Plotnik Jewish leaders don’t need to be declared or coronated
Top 5 Ways We Remember Our Rebbeim (and we love them for it!)
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin An ode to these pivotal people in my life
Hanging On in Newark
Rabbi Nosson Scherman Rabbi Nosson Scherman remembers the shul of his youth
A Fine Kettle of Fish
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman The “minor” chasadim are often the most meaningful
The Next Hill
Jacob L. Freedman The look on Malachi’s face nearly broke my heart
Tradition and Modern Meet in One Long Dance
Riki Goldstein Fusing tradition and modernity comes naturally to him
A Playlist for Shabbos
Riki Goldstein What does Moshy Kraus sing at the Shabbos table?
With Flying Colors
Riki Goldstein My 15 seconds of fame on the Carnegie Hall stage
Full Faith
Faigy Peritzman With emunah, everyone’s obligation is the same
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Silence isn’t always golden
The Only One
With Rav Moshe Wolfson, written by Baila Vorhand Within every Jew is the flame of instinctive emunah