(Central Israel) — As I write this, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is flying to Washington for his first official meetings with President Trump.
The men have known each other for years, and there is a good chemistry between the two. They met last fall in Trump Tower (see picture above) and have spoken several times by phone since then. There is, therefore, a great deal of optimism among Americans and Israelis that a new, warmer, closer friendship can and will be forged after the deep strains of the Obama-Biden years. Yet there are also concerns regarding just how the Trump relationship with Netanyahu and his government will play out.
What exactly should we be watching for this week? Here are five crucial questions to which I’m looking for answers.
1.) HOW WILL THE TWO LEADERS PREVENT IRAN FROM GOING NUCLEAR? — No issue on Netanyahu’s agenda is more important than undoing the damage of the nuclear deal President Obama cut with Iran, the deal the Israeli premier famously called an “historic mistake.”
Most of the GOP candidates during the primary vowed to rip up the deal if they were elected president. But candidate Trump never did. He has certainly blasted the deal as terrible, but rather than scrap it he vowed during the campaign to “police” it and punish Iran the moment they violate its terms. In recent weeks, numerous Trump cabinet officials and advisors have reaffirmed that the President won’t scrap the deal. (See here, here, here, here and here.) During an Oval Office call with Saudi King Salman last month, President Trump vowed to “rigorously enforce” the Iran deal.
Interestingly, since the election Netanyahu has not actually urged Trump to scrap the deal but to “tighten the noose” around Iran’s neck with punishing new sanctions. The Prime Minister has publicly suggested he has at least five additional options the new President could consider vis-à-vis Iran, though he has not explained what those are yet.
The big question then is this: Can Trump and Netanyahu agree on a unified strategy to contain the ayatollahs of Iran and prevent Tehran from building nuclear weapons and further testing long-range ballistic missiles, and if so, what exactly will that strategy involve?
2) HOW CAN THEY CONTAIN THE CRISIS IN SYRIA? — Here in Israel, we are watching a modern Arab state implode before our very eyes. More than 500,000 people are dead. Chemical weapons have been used by the Assad regime, and by the Islamic State. The militaries of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Turkey are all operating in the Syrian theater. The refugee crisis is enormous. Millions of Syrians have poured into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
The big question now is this: Can Trump and Netanyahu map out a unified approach to contain the crisis in Syria and prevent it from causing: A) a new war to erupt with Israel; B) a flood of terrorists to spread out into the U.S., Israel, Europe and the Arab world; and C) the destabilization of Jordan and/or other Arab allies?
3) HOW CAN THEY ADVANCE RATHER THAN UNDERMINE THE EMERGING STRATEGIC ALLIANCE WITH THE SUNNI ARAB WORLD? — As I have been writing about for the last several years (see here, here, here, here and here), a quiet but dramatic shift is taking place in the epicenter.
The existential threats posed by Iran and the Islamic State — and the vacuum caused by President Obama’s foolish insistence on retreating from the Middle East — are causing Sunni Arab states to discreetly drop their intense hostility with Israel. Indeed, they are working closely — increasingly closely — with the Jewish State to protect themselves from common enemies. Every few weeks, I’m hearing of more high-level contacts between current and former Israeli leaders and current and former Sunni Arab leaders.
The big questions now are these:
- Can Trump and Netanyahu agree on an approach that might deepen and broaden the relationships between Israel and the Sunni Arab states from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco?
- Is it even possible to help some of those Sunni states step forward and sign peace treaties with Israel, as Egypt and Jordan have already done? (Yes, this would have seemed fanciful just a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem crazy anymore.)
4) WILL THEY ACTUALLY MOVE THE U.S. EMBASSY TO JERUSALEM, AND IF SO HOW, AND WHEN? — It looked like it was going to happen fast.
Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, just told Politico that his impression was that the Trump team initially wanted to move the embassy to Jerusalem in the first moments after the Inauguration.
- Candidate Trump insisted he would make the move quickly.
- A law passed in a bipartisan fashion and signed by President Clinton in 1996 fully allows President Trump to make the move.
- President Trump has appointed a new U.S. Ambassador to Israel — David Friedman — who fully supports moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
- An excellent new report by Rob Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explains how to make the move in a way to strengthen rather than undermine America’s position in the Mideast. (I commend the report to your attention; click here to read it in full.)
However, America’s Sunni Arab allies, and surely the Palestinian leadership, have warned President Trump not to be hasty. They argue such a move could cause a serious backlash against the U.S. on the Arab street and disrupt or even derail the significant progress that is being made behind the scenes in terms of Israeli-Sunni relations.
To his credit, the new President has slowed the process down somewhat. He is rightly listening carefully to a range of counselors on the matter. In the end, this is certainly the President’s decision alone to make.
I do hope he moves the U.S. Embassy to West Jerusalem. This would correct an historic injustice when Washington refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital dating back to 1948. I can’t think of another national capital in any country around the world that America doesn’t recognize and have an embassy located there. Everyone knows that, at the very least, West Jerusalem is going to be Israel’s capital even if and when a peace deal with the Palestinians is completed. Congress and President Clinton agreed on a bipartisan basis to move the embassy to Jerusalem twenty years ago, and we should make good on this commitment. But yes, we should do it wisely, and in close communication and cooperation with our allies. I encourage the President to move forward, to wisely weigh every issue carefully, and to make sure he does not accidentally step on a proverbial landmine in the process.
The big question now is this: Will Trump and Netanyahu agree that this should be done, and if so how, and how quickly — or will they conclude that such a decision regarding the embassy should be slowed down to put more attention on building a global coalition to contain Iran and finding new ways to strengthen the U.S.-Israel-Sunni alliance?
5) HOW WILL THEY STRENGTHEN ISRAELI SECURITY AND IMPROVE THE LIVES OF PALESTINIANS EVEN IF THE PROSPECTS OF A PEACE DEAL ARE MINIMAL RIGHT NOW? — President Trump sees himself as a deal-maker par excellence. He would love to be the guy who solved this problem where no other American president could. He wants to appoint his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to focus on make a peace deal.
That said, most observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict see no way to make a comprehensive peace deal any time soon. Here are a few reasons why:
- A terrorist organization (Hamas) controls Gaza and has been firing rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians since Israel withdrew in 2005.
- The Palestinian Authority is led by a man (Mahmoud Abbas) serving the twelfth year of a four year term and is unwilling to hold new elections.
- The Palestinian leadership has repeatedly rejected generous peace offers made by successive Israeli prime ministers.
- The Palestinian leadership has refused since 2009 to come to the table and sit down for bilateral negotiations with Israeli leaders.
Meanwhile, as the world tries to pressure Israel to focus on a two-state solution, Israeli leaders on the center-right are increasingly calling for the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and even the annexation of part or all of the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is cautioning his governing coalition not to overreach and expect the Trump administration to give Israeli leaders everything they want.
The big question now is this: In the absence of a clear path forward in the peace process for now, can Trump and Netanyahu agree on a strategy to improve Israeli security; improve the lives of the Palestinian people by encouraging economic growth, job creation, and the building of new factories, schools, hospitals, roads and other critical infrastructure; and do so in a way that doesn’t undermine — and may even enhance — the quiet alliance emerging between Israel and her Sunni Arab neighbors?
These are big questions. I’m as curious as you are to see what answers emerge. Let’s be praying for wisdom for the two leaders as they and their advisors meet this week.