Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, has covered many world leaders’ visits to the Jewish state. He saw in President Trump’s visit reasons for optimism—and a little worry. On the same day Trump departed for Italy on the last leg of his first official trip abroad, Herb joined israel360 users for an insightful late-night (for him) Ask Me Anything.
The highlights are below, lightly edited for grammar:
israel360 user: What, if anything, was accomplished through this trip? He visited the Kotel, he gave two speeches and spent a second [15 minutes] at Yad Vashem. But there was no official recognition for Jerusalem, the “move the embassy first day in office” didn’t happen, the Iran deal is in place, etc. From the perspective of Israelis, was anything accomplished or was this an empty spectacle?
Herb Keinon (HK): There was more symbol than substance in the visit, but the symbols were important. The visit to the Kotel was an important symbolic gesture from an Israeli perspective. Likewise, the fact that he is visiting Israel on his first trip abroad also sends an important message. Israelis yearn for a hearty embrace from U.S. presidents. A handshake, a peck on the cheek is not enough for the country’s insecure psyche. Israel needs a smooch on the mouth in the public square to give it security that the Americans are behind us. It is also important for Israel that its enemies see that embrace. This is one of the problems the country had with former President Barack Obama. It took Obama more than four years to make his first presidential visit to Israel, even though it took him less than six months to visit other countries in the region: Turkey in April of 2009, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt in June of that year. That was noticed in Jerusalem, and elsewhere, and set the U.S.-Israeli relationship off on the wrong foot. Obama came to Israel on the first leg of his first visit abroad in his second term. Trump, in marked contrast, has come on the second leg of his first trip abroad in his first term. And he stressed that fact in public statements. “We love Israel, we respect Israel,” he said upon landing. “And I send your people the warmest greetings from your friend and ally, all of the people in the United States of America.” That is a message Israel is very keen on the world hearing. There was also the symbolism of his flying directly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, believed to be the first time this has openly been done, with the Saudis up until now forbidding any such flights because it might be perceived as direct public ties with a country with whom it is still in a state of war. Trump said the Saudis have a “very positive” view of Israel, and this direct flight was a small symbol of changing attitudes.
israel360 user: I’m wondering about unofficial (we can read official) reaction to the $110 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia. In the “new” (?) Middle East, is this actually something that should put Israel at ease?
HK: The arms sales to Saudi Arabia does raise some concern in Jerusalem, because of the worry here that this could chip into Israel’s all-important qualitative military edge in the region. This issue did come up in President Trump’s meeting on Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Trump—according to a White House readout of that meeting—reassuring Netanyahu that the U.S. would preserve the superiority of Israel’s weaponry in the region.
israel360 user: Why is it such a “big deal” that this is the first sitting president to visit the Kotel (Western Wall)?
HK: At a time when there are efforts led by the Palestinians, and supported by organizations like UNESCO, to deny a Jewish connection to Jerusalem, a high-profile visit by the president of the United States sends an important signal that both recognizes the importance of the site to the Jewish people, and says that the United States will stand against efforts to re-write history.
israel360 user: Trump has indicated he wants to make the “ultimate deal”—Israeli-Palestinian peace. He didn’t give a single specific suggestion during the trip that I saw. Do you think this is the guy who can make it happen?
HK: I think he is sincere in wanting to make it happen, but it is not only up to him. The question is whether the sides will be willing to make the compromises that are necessary for it to happen. I have my doubts about Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ ability at this time to make any of the compromises that he would need to make. Trump’s game-plan seems to be to get the Arab world to nudge him in that direction. It’s not clear whether they will, nor whether Netanyahu will be willing to pay the price at this time—with the region in flames—needed for them to do so.
israel360 user: I think Trump can try to reset the conversation, but he’s still stuck with Netanyahu and Abbas at the table. Do you think he genuinely likes either of them? He has a tendency to be a bit sycophantic/star-struck when meeting/talking to world leaders.
HK: I have no inside information on who Trump genuinely likes or dislikes. He has known Netanyahu for quite some time, and—from outside appearances—seems to have an easy and good rapport with him. He obviously does not have the same type of relationship with Abbas.
israel360 user: Of course, Israel needs the U.S. support, so they cannot come out against Trump too publicly (as we know, he is a loose cannon). BUT, aren’t there larger implications that need to be addressed? Why hasn’t Bibi or anyone else in Likud formally addressed the fact that Steve Bannon is a raging anti-Semite? How about the fact that Trump’s campaign has empowered anti-Semitism both in the United States and the world? Finally, has Israel addressed the issue of Trump divulging Israeli intelligence to the Russians?
HK: I think that one thing, though obvious, needs to be stated: Israeli Jews and American Jews do not have identical interests. Israelis live in the most hostile environment in the world, and are rightly preoccupied with issues of security: their children’s and their country’s. American Jews live in the most welcoming country for Jews in history. That shapes how you look at whoever is president, and who you want to be president. Israelis, for the most part, are looking at one thing when they gauge an American president: Is he good for Israel? And by “good” that means, for most people here, will he or she not pressure Israel to take risks it does not think it can afford? American Jews are not judging their president, or voting for their president, only on the basis of what is good for Israel. And that creates different perceptions. Bibi has not said that Bannon is a “raging anti-Semite” because he does not believe that he is, nor does he hold Trump responsible for anti-Semitism in the U.S., any more than Obama was held responsible for anti-Semitism on the extreme left when he was president. Regarding the intelligence issue, obviously—if true as reported—it is of great concern, and I’m sure it is being dealt with in private channels. However, Israel gains nothing by publicly raking a friendly president over the coals over this. The feeling is that differences were aired too publicly under Obama, and that did not go well. Now, with a new president, when there are differences—and there are and will continue to be—the hope is they can be dealt with more quietly.
israel360 user: Does Israeli media or the government, for that matter, have any impression of Jared Kushner as a bonafide interlocutor? Is he regarded as a serious player in the effort to promote some kind of deal or dialogue?
HK: He is definitely seen as a bonafide player, but his exact role and the degree of his involvement remains somewhat of a mystery. One thing that Netanyahu’s government is obviously pleased about is that—unlike the situation under Obama—there are a number of key players very close to the president able to present Israel’s case. This includes Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, Mike Pence and Nikki Haley. There was a sense here that once Dennis Ross left the Obama White House, there was nobody close to the president who was whispering Israel’s “sweet nothings” into the ear of the president. This is no longer believed to be the case.
israel360 user: What is the most negative result of his trip? Most positive?
HK: The most positive result is the tone of the trip itself. One of Israel’s key assets in its relations with other countries around the world is the perception that it has a very, very close and special relationship with Washington. That perception was hurt badly during the “Obibi era,” the days of Obama and Bibi. This visit went a long way in restoring that perception. As far as negative results, I think that Israel should be concerned about the degree to which Trump praised Saudi King Salman during his visit. There is nothing wrong with praising another leader, but he was effusive in his praise in six of seven of his public appearances (the only exception was at Yad Vashem). I’m a little concerned about the influence of the Saudis on Trump’s view of the world. While this is OK when Israel and the Saudis share the same strategic goals in wanting to halt the Iranians, when those interests diverge and the Saudis begin pushing hard on the Palestinian issue—if they decided to do so—that could present problems for Israel down the line. It is something worth watching. Note that one of the reasons Trump is not moving the embassy is because of Saudi and Jordanian protests. Also, he went to Saudi Arabia before coming to Israel, and while there signed deals worth an estimated $350 billion. For an “America first” president for whom “jobs, jobs, jobs” is the clarion call, that is quite an investment, and not one that Israel can match.