The US-Israel reset is advancing slower than some had hoped


Trump and Netanyahu exchanged niceties and will soon powwow in DC, but an embassy move and West Bank annexation seem further off

Times of Israel

Three days after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, the US-Israeli reset is in full swing. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to visit the White House next month to further cement what both sides proclaim will be a new golden age of bilateral relations devoid of the wedge of “daylight” that split the alliance for the last eight years.

However, those who expected tectonic shifts in the very first days of the new administration are likely to be disappointed. To be sure, Monday is the new president’s first full workday, but for the time being, Israel’s messianic anticipations of the Trump era have been met with nothing but a slight change in tone on the part of the US administration — which no longer shies away from saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism.”

While both sides are making strenuous efforts to highlight the new harmony, in terms of substantive, credible policy statements, very little has actually happened since Trump entered the White House.

On Sunday, Netanyahu and the new leader of the free world had a pleasant phone conversation, according to readouts from both sides.

Netanyahu’s office described the half-hour conversation as “very warm.” Trump said it was “very nice.”

The prime minister “expressed his desire to work closely with President Trump to forge a common vision to advance peace and security in the region.” And the new president “emphasized the importance the United States places on our close military, intelligence and security cooperation with Israel, which reflects the deep and abiding partnership between our countries.”

Trump also affirmed his “unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security,” but for now that’s just an empty slogan for a president who hasn’t yet done a thing for Israel’s security.

Obviously, these official readouts only provide very limited insights into what really occurred during the conversation. But it is telling that neither side mentioned Trump’s promised intention to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Netanyahu also did not bring up the issue in his lengthy remarks to the Likud faction in the Knesset on Monday afternoon, in which he exhorted his party not to push for sudden moves that could test the budding relationship between him and Trump.

Still, that hasn’t stopped some local pundits from seeing great portents in the tea leaves.

In the hours before Sunday’s phone call, veteran Israeli reporter Amit Segal gushingly reported that the move would be announced Monday. Then, after White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the administration was “at the very beginning stages of even discussing” the embassy move, Segal tweeted a correction, saying the relocation would be announced “already tonight.”

Once it was pointed out to him that Spicer’s statement, if anything, indicated the administration’s hesitance to make any dramatic announcement on this issue in the coming days, Segal maintained that it was unprecedented for the White House to even talk about beginning to relocate the embassy.

Israeli officials joined the celebrations, with Jerusalem Minister Ze’ev Elkin praising Trump for “making the campaign promise a reality.”

But bringing the US Embassy to Jerusalem has not only been a campaign promise for various US presidential hopefuls, it has also been seriously considered by incumbent administrations.

In 2000, Bill Clinton, after having declined to move the embassy for a half a decade, in his final year in office vowed to review moving the embassy, due to failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

George W. Bush also publicly toyed with the idea throughout his eight years in the White House, saying in late 2006 that he “remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said Monday that his contacts in the new administration give him hope that this time they’re serious. US officials are reportedly already looking for real estate in Jerusalem. But in the meantime, official statements from Washington on the issue since the Inauguration have been tepid at best.

Furthermore, thwarting Iran — an issue that “continues to be a supreme goal of the State of Israel,” as Netanyahu declared earlier on Sunday — was barely mentioned by the statements that followed his conversation with Trump.

On Monday afternoon, the prime minister said he spoke with Trump “at length” about the Iranian threat, and that the new president agrees the nuclear pact was bad. But there was no word about abrogating or even amending it.

Domestic developments also testify to the slow pace in which the ostensible changes of the Trump era are progressing.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, had predicted that the two-state solution would exit the world stage together with Barack Obama. He and other politicians to the right of Netanyahu, including ministers from the prime minister’s own Likud party, vowed to advance legislation to apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank — a de facto annexation — as soon as the new president is sworn in.

But Netanyahu, who opposes such moves, was able to buy time. He persuaded his ministers to postpone any unilateral action until after his meeting with Trump in early February. In return for their patience, he promised unfettered construction in East Jerusalem and other settlement blocs.

At Monday’s weekly Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, Netanyahu went to great lengths to tone down expectations of a new era in which Israel could do whatever it wants with the West Bank. While he welcomed the “change in approach” that Trump brought with him to the White House, he cautioned against hasty moves.

“Now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions, dictates or surprises,” he said. “Now is the time for responsible and prudent diplomacy among friends; diplomacy that will strengthen the cooperation and trust between the Israeli government and the new administration in Washington.”

Donald Trump remains utterly unpredictable, and it is not impossible that he will announce his support for settlement expansion or the US Embassy’s relocation in the days or weeks ahead. And while there is little doubt that the US-Israel relationship will be decidedly different under Trump from how it was under his predecessor, change seems to be coming slower than many in Jerusalem had hoped for.

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