Donald Trump is hoping to rescue his presidency with a trip to a place that has never failed to provide American presidents with relief from workaday cares—the Middle East. The world’s most volatile region is looking pretty moderate right now compared to what Trump’s got on the homefront, where he’s the managerial black hole at the center of his own administration, which is daily beset by internet explosions detonated by himself and by a political class gleefully celebrating its interlocking control of the elite media and the higher levels of the federal bureaucracy.
And now conclusive evidence shows that the Trump White House is indeed under the control of an external power. The big surprise is that it’s not Russia that gives Donald Trump his marching orders—no, his presidency is being run by midlevel paper-pushers at the State Department and the Pentagon whose larger vision of the world is shaped by their former bosses.
Earlier in the week, officials at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem told their counterparts in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office exactly how Trump’s visit to Israel was going to go down. The prime minister wouldn’t be allowed to tag along with Trump as he visited the Western Wall—no way. The Kotel, said the American diplomats, is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”
The White House scrambled to address the fallout. “The comments about the Western Wall were not authorized communication and they do not represent the position of the United States, and certainly not of the president,” said an administration official.
So what is Trump’s position, then? White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster declined to answer whether the administration believes the Western Wall is part of Israel. “That sounds like a policy decision,” McMaster demurred.
“No state has sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem,” said another Trump administration official. “The status of Jerusalem is an issue that should be resolved in final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.” In other words, the Kotel isn’t part of Israel—and Trump’s Israel policy is the same as Obama’s policy.
Wrong, a senior administration official told me recently. This president’s Israel-Palestine policy is in fact very different from that of his predecessor. For instance, if Trump sees that the Palestinians are yanking his chain, he’ll walk away from the table. But Obama did that too—back in 2011, before letting John Kerry take his own shot at glory in order to tie the Israelis down while Obama sealed his deal with Iran.
Here’s some breaking news, guys—the Palestinian Authority is not serious about a peace deal. A quarter century of American stewardship of the peace process has given us mountains of evidence that there is not a deal to be had any time in the near future. Yasser Arafat left Bill Clinton standing with his hat in his hand in 2000, an insult that the American president never forgot or forgave. Mahmoud Abbas turned down deals from George W. Bush in 2008 and from John Kerry in 2014. Trump should perhaps be commended for his open-mindedness in wanting to give Abbas another chance and to see for himself what this peace-process business is all about—but let him do it on his own time and his own expense because that’s not why he was elected.
Trump was elected because he was going to drain the swamp, and there is no fouler cesspool in U.S. foreign policy than the peace process. It’s an industry that creates a lobby of many thousand creeps around the world who have a vested interest in prolonging a pointless exercise regardless of how many Israeli, Arab, or American lives are sacrificed along the way so they can go on mouthing platitudes at Davos. Trump is not going to walk away from the peace process because the swamp will drag him in—it already has.
Trump was elected because he said he saw through the politicians, and he understood the toxicity of our political system. Now it appears that he didn’t know the score. The Republican nominees and the Democratic candidate all knew the peace process is a toxic fraud, but they also knew that you have to pay it lip service and show your bona fides or the smart set will pick you apart like carrion. So is Trump now a part of the problem he set out to solve?
Trump is the guy who was supposed to have seen through this garbage and was determined to back his words with actions. Being a good ally—like Trump promised—means supporting the Israelis 100 percent in international forums, sharing intelligence, and arming Israel’s fighters to the teeth so that they can send to the next world as quickly as possible as many terrorists as it takes to ensure peace. So what does Trump think now? That the millions of American children, Jewish and Christian, who read the Bible in Saturday or Sunday school learn that Jerusalem isn’t actually the capital of the Jewish people and the center of their religious and national yearnings for 3,500 years—no, it’s a mere detail that will have to be settled in final negotiations.
But what about the peace process? Isn’t that important to Israel’s future—indeed, to its very survival? Here’s another news flash: Israel is doing fine. Its economy is booming. This isn’t about Israel. It’s about America.
From an American perspective, it made sense during the Cold War to balance the Israelis and the PLO. After the Berlin Wall fell, it was arguably worth seeing if there was a further peace dividend to be earned through clever negotiating in nice hotels. After all, the Soviet empire was dead, and the Gulf Arabs had cut Arafat off without a penny after he backed Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Surely the wily survivor would be happy to cash some American checks to go along with his Nobel Peace Prize and tell his people that the noble cause was won. As for the Israelis, who were struggling to absorb a million post-Soviet refugees into a creaky post-Socialist economy, who were they to tell America to take a hike? Oslo was a deal that the two parties struck themselves. America came in just in time for the photo-op on the White House lawn.
The inability to see how radically different the world looks now, in 2017, than it did nearly a quarter-century ago, in 1993, isn’t simply the triumph of hope over experience: It’s both a symptom and a cause of a larger disease that has been rapidly eroding America’s ability to function as a global power. The historical record is clear: The Palestinians don’t want a peace deal, at any price. What’s left is a cynical charade, where the United States pays the PA not to kill Israelis. However, the PA uses that money to pay for terrorists who have killed Israelis—and also Americans, like Taylor Force. Now, in Trump’s Queens neighborhood, if you bribe someone and they don’t stay bribed, you work out another arrangement.
But: “Oh, no,” the argument runs, “if we don’t pay off the PA then Hamas will take over the West Bank, and then Israel will be at war!” In other words, the American taxpayer is paying the PA not to kill Israelis so that Israelis won’t have to kill more Hamas fighters. If that equation makes sense to Israeli officials, fine—let them tax Tel Aviv’s flourishing IT sector to pay for it.
The issue for Americans is the corruption of our own public sphere by this upside-down discourse. There’s only one meaningful difference between Obama’s 2014 peace process and Trump’s—the former knew he was tying down Israel to distract attention from Israel’s real issue—Iran. Trump is tying Israel down out of ignorance and to boost his own ego. Yes, Trump knows Iran is a problem, but even on the cusp of what some White House aides are only half-kiddingly calling his anti-Iran tour, he lacks clarity.
Trump was elected because he promoted a vision of America First. One of the reasons Trump isn’t moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, at least not now, like he promised, is because he doesn’t want to upset other American allies, like Saudi Arabia. It’s good for America that Trump wants to reinvigorate the American alliance system in the Middle East—even if the invocation of the “Arab NATO” force he wants to help build seems more like a poke at our European allies than a description of a pact that could project real military power—but let’s be serious: What are the Saudis going to do if their American protector decides it’s moving its embassy to the Israeli capital? Retaliate by losing $5 billion out of the $100 billion arms deal the Saudis will be cutting with Trump this weekend for the sole and explicit purpose of making sure the president’s mind is focused on Iran? Maybe Riyadh will ask Federica Mogherini and the European Union to shelter them from the Islamic Republic?
And this is the problem for Netanyahu—Trump’s lack of clarity. Trump isn’t trying to undermine Netanyahu like Obama did, but it doesn’t matter because the price has gone higher now that the Iran deal is done.
Like Trump, Bibi has a reputation for being a hardliner and, like Trump, that reputation is unearned. Bibi is careful and conventional, which is what has made Israel prosperous and kept it out of major wars. After telling the world how dangerous Iran is, he failed to launch a game-changing attack that would have stopped the Iran deal in its tracks—and delighted the sheikhs in the Gulf. Instead, he went to Congress and made an impassioned speech that made the Obama administration angry.
So what’s Bibi going to do when the Iranians finish securing their highway from Teheran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut, putting Iranian troops and advisers—and missiles carrying God knows what—on two of Israel’s borders? Three years ago, the vision of a nuclear-armed Iran with direct land access to Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria would have been a feverish hallucination. Now you can see it happening on Google Maps.
Is Paul Ryan going to invite Bibi to give another speech to Congress, complaining that Trump isn’t doing what he promised about Iran? Maybe this time, Rep. Nancy Pelosi will sign on, too.
Cautious Bibi would never be so foolish as to wave a red flag in front of a wounded bull. No, he believes in the wisdom of whispering behind closed doors, even with Trump. In public, he is content to serve as a prop.
Yes, Mr. Prime Minister, President Trump is going to make a tolerance and co-existence tour including Saudi Arabia, custodian of the two holy shrines, and also the Vatican, and we’d like to use the Western Wall for some of the B-roll. And we’d really appreciate it if you stay the hell out of the picture. Yes, we know, it’s the holiest site where Jews pray but it’s not really about Israel—or even a part of Israel. That will be determined sometime in the future.
But here’s the catch: There are no private conversations in the Trump White House. And Trump isn’t running the show—the bureaucrats are.
Trump is the president of the United States, and Bibi has no choice but to welcome him. He should stress that every visitor to Israel, regardless of race, creed, or nationality, is free to tour Jerusalem’s holy sites and take selfies there, as long as they are respectfully attired. But as a matter of state policy, the prime minister of Israel should not meet with anyone who denies the 3,500-year long connection of the Jewish people to their national capital and to Judaism’s holiest site. That goes for Mahmoud Abbas, and the King of Saudi Arabia, and the foreign minister of Germany. And it also goes for Donald Trump.
Maybe that would shake Trump back to the reality that he promised voters. At the very least, it might help Netanyahu gain some clarity about the need to steer his own ship in the wake of an American power that is losing its course.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).