- By Daniel ShapiroDaniel Shapiro served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from July 2011 to the end of the Obama administration.
Ask anyone who has previously worked in the White House and he or she will tell you: Overseas presidential trips are hard.
The preparations take weeks and involve hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Every item on the schedule is intricately planned. Advance staff must take into account demands of the host governments and cultural sensitivities, along with logistical and security constraints. It’s not for the faint of heart.
These trips can be double-edged swords. Nothing looks more presidential than Air Force One, the foreign leaders’ greetings, the soaring speeches at iconic sites, and the cheering crowds. A trip can provide a morale lift and a needed change of subject, as was the case when Richard Nixon toured the Middle East in 1974 only two months before Watergate forced his resignation. But a poorly managed trip can magnify the sense of a White House in chaos. And even a well-run trip can put the traveling staff in a bubble, where they lose sight of how badly things are going back home, which happened to President Bill Clinton’s team in Ireland in 1998 as Congressional Democrats’ reactions to the Monica Lewinsky scandal hardened.
Into this minefield steps President Donald Trump and his dysfunctional White House staff. They lurch from crisis to crisis. They are internally divided. They are inexperienced in government. And their boss is notoriously unpredictable.
So why not visit Israel, where every word, step, and gesture is minutely scrutinized? What could possibly go wrong?
I don’t envy the White House staff that has been entrusted with this challenge. When I was U.S. ambassador to Israel, we took six weeks to prepare for President Barack Obama’s visit to the country in 2013. Trump’s staffers have had about half as long. We had four years of experience with presidential travel under our belts. They are making their foreign debut. We had a president whose nickname was “No Drama.” They, well — enough said.
Already there have been glitches in the planning process. The Israelis raised their eyebrows at the White House’s somewhat odd choice of the ancient desert fortress of Masada as the site for Trump’s speech, only to have the Americans pull the request with days to spare. Questions were raised about whether Trump would visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, usually a mandatory stop for visiting heads of state. (In the end, he will go.) The two sides tussled over whether Israeli officials would accompany Trump on his visit to the Western Wall, a first by any sitting president, given the disputed status of Jerusalem’s Old City (he will go alone), and these opposing views on Jerusalem spilled out in a public exchange. And then came the shocking revelation that Trump exposed intelligence of Israeli origin, without Israel’s permission, to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in their Oval Office meeting last week.
The trip could be shaping up to be a bumpy ride. But despite the sense of crisis, everyone on both sides wants the visit to succeed. So how does Trump define success?
On his 2013 visit, Obama’s successes included the positive dynamics of a reset with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as both of them began their new terms; Obama’s effective connection with a skeptical Israeli public, including a well-received speech; the re-launch of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, led by Secretary of State John Kerry; effective coordination on Iran and Syria (this was before later disagreements over the Iran nuclear deal); the launch of negotiations on a new 10-year military assistance package; and the coordination of a phone call between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that opened the door to Israeli-Turkish reconciliation.
It is too early in Trump’s term to expect significant policy wins, even if his was a normal administration. Indeed, the chronic understaffing of the administration has slowed the conduct of routine business with allies like Israel. But simply being well received by the Israeli public, many members of which soured on Obama, and projecting a warm working relationship with Netanyahu, are not insignificant goals. In light of the intelligence and Jerusalem snafus, the question is whether these goals are even achievable.
The big win that Trump wants, of course, is a re-launch of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supported by Sunni Arab states. That also accounts, in part, for his preceding stop in Saudi Arabia, and his respectful visit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House earlier this month. And with Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states all seeking to establish the best possible relationships with the mercurial Trump, he has leverage to get all of them to take difficult steps, if he knows how to use it.
The difficulty, of course, is that virtually no Israeli or Palestinian believes such talks can succeed. Weighed down by the failures of previous negotiations, hardly anyone on either side would have recommended that Trump take on the Sisyphean task of pursuing a final agreement — what he calls the “ultimate deal.” The mistrust between the leaders and societies on both sides, the recent waves of Palestinian terror, the expansion of Israeli West Bank settlements, and the domestic constraints on both Netanyahu and Abbas all suggest that the moment is not right. If forced back to the table to appease Trump, most expect the talks to crash and fail, possibly punctuated by a new round of violence.
That would be a dispiriting legacy of Trump’s initial foreign venture. But he could hardly be blamed for failing to make Israeli-Palestinian peace, like every one of his predecessors.
Indeed, the bigger question that hangs over his peace initiative is whether the goal is still relevant at all. As Israelis and Palestinians mark, in different ways, fifty years since the Six Day War, there are fewer and fewer believers that the conventional approach to resolving the conflict is still relevant, and more and more who see us approaching (or already past) a tipping point.
The two-state solution may not be dead — and indeed, strong leadership could give it new life — but its likelihood is so low that there is a crying need to start to consider alternatives. That’s nearly impossible for the U.S. government to do at the same time it is trying to lead negotiations, so the task may fall to outsiders.
All of the known alternatives are suboptimal, to say the least. But in each of them, the United States would need a strategy to defend its interests and uphold its commitments. I don’t expect any such discussion during Trump’s visit next week, focused as it is on launching talks. But by the end of his term, we might find ourselves having a very different kind of conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian future.
Is Trump able to grasp these complexities? Can his team emerge from the chaos able to think strategically about them? Wait — don’t answer that question.
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