Trump & Netanyahu: Send in the Clowns

by Amb. Daniel Kurtzer, Princeton University, 
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

The Feb. 15 Trump-Netanyahu press conference had some of the trappings of a normal event marking a meeting between two leaders. Except it wasn’t.

The two leaders staged a clever, carefully-crafted charade designed solely to deal with the political crises both are facing at home. Diplomacy was nowhere in sight.

First, the whole set-up was strange. Not only were the press and political aides present, but so were the spouses and Trump’s daughter Ivanka — ornaments for the show. Trump and Netanyahu spoke to the press before their meeting, making this more akin to a campaign whistle stop with slogans and stump speeches rather than a serious opportunity to share the substance of their discussions. The two leaders seemed to go out of their way to signal that the entire event was choreographed for show. All that seemed missing was the slapstick wink and nod.

Second, a serious change in policy was tossed out casually, seemingly with no analysis or thought — sort of like a tweet. For decades, the two-state solution has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Yet at the news conference, Trump said, “I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like. I can live with either one.” Typically such a change in policy would take place after careful reflection, realistic assessment and developed strategy, which would have concluded that the only option for peace is the two-state solution. Adding further confusion was the Feb. 16 statement by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley that the United States continues to support the two-state outcome.

As casual as Trump seemed with his words, he did not make his statement out of total ignorance. He did so to relieve Netanyahu of the burden of doing the same under pressure from the right wing extremists in his coalition. Netanyahu’s partners, especially Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party, had demanded that Netanyahu explicitly reject two states, and they didn’t even want the words “two states” mentioned in Washington. Trump provided a face saver for Netanyahu by saying the words but effectively gutting them of meaning. Netanyahu was then able to repeat his unrealistic mantra about the preconditions for his supporting two states, going so far as to say — while mocking the U.S., the Palestinians and his rivals at home — that he wasn’t interested in what he called the “slogan” of two states but rather peace.

Third, Trump seemed to take a more traditional U.S. stand regarding settlements, saying last week that Israel should moderate their construction. But this, too, was a full out charade. Shortly after Trump’s election, the Israeli government had made announcements of significant new construction in the occupied territories — seemingly freed up at the prospect of “their guy” in the White House. Yet in the same breath that the White House had warned Israel to slow down on the settlements, the statement said they are really not an obstacle to peace — a contradiction that Trump repeated at the press conference. His remark was greeted by laughter from the aides because they understood fully that Trump’s public caution would allow Netanyahu to actually continue settlement activity but at a pace and scope of his, not Bennett’s, choosing.

Finally, Trump seemingly agreed with Netanyahu’s oft-stated precondition that the Palestinians need to accept Israel as a Jewish state. Netanyahu knows well that this is a non-starter for the Palestinians and thus a convenient way to point the finger of blame at them for recalcitrance. It is unclear what Trump knows. Does he understand that since 1993 the Palestinians have accepted Israel’s legitimacy and recognized the State of Israel? Or that Netanyahu’s demand is a slap at the million-plus Palestinian citizens of Israel? It seems clear that Trump does not know that Israel has not really defined itself as a Jewish state. Israel has no constitution in large part because basic disagreements over identity, religion, civil rights and the like have proved impossible to overcome.

Rather than a serious diplomatic venture, the joint press conference was a piece of political theater. We should not have been surprised. Both leaders face turmoil at home, both wanted to outmaneuver political opponents, and both wanted to shift the conversation away from their utter failure to articulate and implement reasonable policies. As the song goes: “Send in the Clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.”

Amb. Daniel Kurtzer is the S. Daniel Abraham Visiting Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Following a 29-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, Kurtzer retired in 2005 with the rank of career-minister. From 2001 to 2005, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel and, from 1997 to 2001, he served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt.