This past week, Donald Trump made his first official visit to Israel, where he largely followed the same script of previous presidents. He met with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, hailed America’s unshakable bond with its most cherished ally, warned that Iran would not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon, and promised a renewed push for peace in the Middle East. Though Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall, he pointedly refused to allow Israeli officials to accompany him, lest the gesture be interpreted as recognition of Israeli sovereignty prior to peace negotiations.
This largely conventional affair left some of Trump’s right-wing pro-Israel supporters scrounging for evidence of any sort of substantial policy shift on the administration’s part. They thought they found it in the subtitle of a livestream. On Monday, Trump and Netanyahu issued a joint statement to the press, and the event was carried on the White House’s YouTube channel, which located the meeting in “Jerusalem, Israel.”
Some right-wing outlets were quick to hail this simple subtitle as the Trump Administration recognizing Israel’s authority in Jerusalem. “Trump Admin Declares Jerusalem Part of Israel in Major Policy Shift,” proclaimed the Washington Free Beacon, citing anonymous White House sources to support the contention that the livestream line was “part of an effort to normalize this language.” This seemed like a lot to hang on what might merely be the incompetent effort of an intern, especially as previous administrations had used similar language without shifting their policy, as Noah Pollak, head of the hawkish Emergency Committee for Israel, pointed out. But many of Trump’s pro-Israel backers went with it.
Unfortunately for them, when Trump spoke the next day at the Israel Museum, this is what the livestream said:
The impulse on the part of hard-right pro-Israel partisans, both inside the administration and out, to grasp at this straw is understandable. Many of them expected Trump’s election to augur a sea change in U.S. policy towards Israel, the two-state solution, settlements, Iran, and much else. Some of these activists, long shunned by the mainstream pro-two-states Jewish establishment, loudly proclaimed victory when Trump won.
But instead of following the hard-right script, Trump has repeatedly declared his intention to forge “the ultimate deal” between the Israelis and the Palestinians, refused to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, pressed Israel to hold back on settlements, signed more sanctions waivers for the Iran deal, and generally followed in the footsteps of the bipartisan Israel consensus in Washington. His policies are part George W. Bush, part Barack Obama, and no part Naftali Bennett.
Tellingly, J Street, the liberal Zionist lobby that has been sharply critical of Trump and ran a campaign to block his Israel ambassador, released a gently supportive statement in the wake of the president’s speech at the Israel Museum, where he outlined his hopes for peace. Supporters of a more dovish policy line in Israel don’t need to overread livestreams when they have the president’s own words and actions in their corner.
The question now becomes: What does Trump have to do for any of the hard-right pro-Israel groups that backed him—from the Iron Dome Alliance to the Zionist Organization of America—to criticize his Israel policies? How long will this free pass last? As New York Times opinion staff editor (and former Tablet politics editor) Bari Weiss put it on Wednesday, “There are plenty of people who might make an argument in favor of Mr. Trump’s decision to maintain all the essential features of the policy status quo that he inherited from Mr. Obama. But based on this visit, Mr. Trump’s right-wing pro-Israel supporters aren’t—or shouldn’t be—among them.”