War Stories

Netanyahu Came to Washington to Hear One Thing

And Trump, in his profound ignorance of Middle East politics, gave it to him.

U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L)
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday in Washington.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Trump’s meeting on Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed that he has no understanding of Middle East politics or of what a peace treaty with the Palestinians would require.

Trump believes that his desire for a deal puts him halfway toward achieving one and that his close friendship with Netanyahu moves him a bit closer still. He doesn’t get that Netanyahu doesn’t need or want a peace deal with the Palestinians at this point. Nor do the Palestinians; nor do the Sunni Arab countries—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates—that Trump wants to drag along to the table.

Israel has improved its security in the past year by forming an alliance with the Sunni Arab leaders, who share a loathing for Iran and Shiite militias. This alliance is on the verge of strengthening its bonds by agreeing to a deal in which Israel would share intelligence about their common enemies. For that reason, though, the last thing that any of them wants is to start up talks with the Palestinians. The Arab leaders must maintain at least rhetorical support for the Palestinians, lest they spark protests by many of their own people. For the same reason, they can’t be seen as signing with Israel too openly. For them to take a seat at Israeli–Palestinian peace talks—as Trump wants them to do in an idea he calls an “outside-in” approach—would risk raising all the issues that they want to avoid discussing.

At the press conference, Netanyahu couldn’t have been clearer about his hesitance to get into the whole business. Trump, at one point, said excitedly, “I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand, so that’s a possibility.”

He turned to Netanyahu, who said nothing. Trump went on: “So let’s see what we do!”

Netanyahu replied, almost inaudibly, “Let’s try.”

Trump laughed off the reticence. “That doesn’t sound too optimistic,” he said, adding, in his own optimistic spin, “Good negotiator.”

Netanyahu recited the longstanding preconditions for any kind of serious talks—that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and cede the security and control over the West Bank.* In an ideal world, those might be the final points of a peace negotiation. In the real world, no Palestinian would accept them as the first points.

Another sign of, let us say, Trump’s unfamiliarity with the region’s politics was his answer to a reporter who asked whether he supported a two-state solution—to which the last several U.S. presidents have paid allegiance or at least lip service. His reply:

So I’m looking at two states and one state. And I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one … To be honest, if Bibi and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians, are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.

Trump may have thought that his answer was shrewd and pragmatic, but in fact it was neither. First, the Palestinians are not going to enter into any negotiations that don’t set their own state as a goal. Second, on the few occasions when these peace talks have borne fruit, they do so only because the United States—usually the president himself—has pushed both sides to a common position. The United States must do this because the two parties are incapable of doing it themselves. This means that the United States must have a strategic vision going into the talks. Trump clearly doesn’t have one. The fact that he’s indifferent about the outcome is proof of that.

There are several reasons Trump doesn’t have a strategic goal. First, he may not think he needs one. He seems to believe that, in general, international relations aren’t much different from the real-estate transactions that made him rich and famous; it’s all about the deal. He doesn’t recognize that in real-estate transactions the basic premises of the deal—the existence of a capitalist society, the body of statutes pertaining to property rights and contract law, the various city and state building codes—are accepted by all parties. Much about peace talks, especially Middle East peace talks, concerns wrangling over the basic premises.

The second reason he doesn’t have a strategic goal is that the National Security Council and its interagency bodies don’t yet exist. The NSC’s Deputies Committee tees up issues and lays out options, but Trump hasn’t yet appointed any of the officials who make up the Deputies Committee—the deputy or undersecretaries of the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and so forth. So far, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have spent much of their time assuring allies that Trump doesn’t mean some of the things he’s said and that America’s commitment to their security is rock-solid. They haven’t got around to making or discussing policy—not just about the Middle East but about much of anything.

Trump did say, at the press conference, that both Israel and the Palestinians would have to compromise, turning to Netanyahu and saying, “You know that, right?” He also told Netanyahu, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” adding, “We’ll work something out.” Netanyahu looked a little nonplussed, though Palestinians aren’t likely to view the exchange with glee. To “hold back” for “a little bit” is vague, if not disingenuous, given Israel’s vast settlements, its new law legalizing even small confiscations of land, and Trump’s appointment as Israel envoy of David Friedman—his bankruptcy lawyer, whose views about settlements veer far to the right of even Netanyahu’s. Still, those looking for the slightest glimmer of light may find some in that line.

One curiosity of the Trump–Netanyahu press conference—their first meeting since Trump became president—was that it took place just after the Israeli leader’s car pulled up to the White House driveway, before any meeting between the two men. Usually, these sorts of press conferences take place after a meeting, so the two heads of state can say what they talked about.

But really the two had nothing to discuss at this point. Netanyahu came to Washington for one reason: to hear the new American president say, “I love you, I love you, I love you” and “I hate Iran, I hate Iran, I hate Iran.” Trump did all that, and Netanyahu beamed. But Trump is kidding himself if he sees this as a harbinger of peace. Netanyahu, who rarely kids himself, knows that it’s no such thing, and he beams all the more because of it.

*Correction, Feb. 15, 2017: This article originally misstated that Benjamin Netanyahu said that Palestinians must recognize Israel before any peace talks. Palestinians recognized Israel in the Oslo Accords but did not recognize Israel as a Jewish state. (Return.)