The Washington Institute hosted a policy forum to discuss the agenda of President Trump and PM Netanyahu’s first Oval Office meeting and the broader issues at stake for the U.S.-Israel relationship in the Trump era. Panelists included Robert Satloff, executive director of The Washington Institute, David Makovsky, the Institute’s Ziegler Distinguished Fellow, and Yoaz Hendel, former director of communications for Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Satloff on the U.S.-Israel relationship: “My view is the Trump Administration will define its objective as being to repair the sense of deep political and strategic divide. It will begin from a different premise of trying to seek strategic understanding that it will be in both Israel’s and America’s interest to begin a partnership at the highest level of a strategic understanding of the core issues that so divided the Obama and Netanyahu governments.”
“We saw by the end of the day of King Abdullah’s meeting with President Trump a reflection of that (being effective). Mainly the first mild–but still substantial– a mild critique of Israeli policy on settlements.”
Satloff on agenda of the first Trump-Netanyahu meeting: Netanyahu’s goal is “to reach an understanding with the President on the volatile issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and settlement activity in such a way that the Prime Minister can enough of a victory here so he can withstand whatever pressures he has back home.”
Satloff on Trump moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem: “The Jerusalem Embassy issue was a campaign promise so I expect the President to find a way to implement and fulfill this campaign promise… Timing is one of the key criteria. This is one of the issues that you do very soon or not for a while. This isn’t one of these issues that is out there three, four, five, six months from now. You do this now, well before the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, well before the anniversary of the six day war, or you have to wait until that episode is behind because if you want to avoid or limit the risk of provocation you don’t emesh this in the 1967 issues, you anchor it in what I call the 1948 set of issues. The absence of an American Embassy in Jerusalem is a residue of a 1948 decision by the Truman Administration that is what President Trump can repair but to enmesh it in the 1967 issues only heightens the possibility that it triggers the reaction that you are trying to avoid. So, it is really an issue for now in the next several weeks well before the decision in May about whether or not to extend the waiver of the law on the Embassy.
Makovsky on the Trump-Netanyahu meeting: “In a certain way, there are lower expectations because indeed President Trump doesn’t have his team in place so it is easier for him to say I am in the listening mode. So why is it so important that Netanyahu is the 3rd invited person to Washington? I think it is symbolic. You have this duality of the last administration of heightened closeness when it comes to military, intel and other forms of security cooperation but you have some very bruising policy fights on Iran and settlements that lasted all of eight years. But, Netanyahu knows the rhythm of Washington: don’t come too late before the policy is set in concrete. When everything is in flux is the time to try to influence the contours of a new approach.”
“Everyone I met in Israel was of the enforcement school. They want to enforce it (Iran deal) vigorously. As one key (Netanyahu) advisor said to me 80-90% of our concerns coming to Washington on Iran when it comes to the nuclear deal is about the so-called sunset provisions– the elements of the deal that fade out in 10-15 years. Netanyahu is going to come and take a pulse and get a sense where is the President on this enforce vs. scrap (Iran agreement). Israel would like to know. They assume Trump is the deal maker on Syria. How are you going to make a deal? How can you drive a wedge between Russia and Iran when it comes to Syria?
“Netanyahu might be a little nervous because, basically, he might feel that maybe Trump could be more like Obama in that he emphasizes retreatment more than he talks about asserting American leadership.”
“What can the US do? If you ignore this issue the volatility on the ground could get worse that the Palestinian Authority could collapse. You have Bennett and the Jewish Home party advocating annexation of 60% of the West Bank, you have got to assume that is an issue and that will create for Israel a very difficult situation where a de facto binational reality will lead for people to call: ‘let’s have one person-one vote.’”
“It’s convenient for Netanyahu on a certain level for the United States is staked out a policy on settlements… Now if there is a blank check, I think that puts him in a very difficult bind with the right because Mr. Bennett will drag him over the fence so-to-speak into the non-bloc areas which is 92% of the West Bank. And I don’t think Netanyahu wants to go there. He (Netanyahu) whispers into President Trump’s ear: ‘We have this letter that George W Bush signed with Sharon. Why not reaffirm it?’
Summary: “I don’t think we are going to come out of this meeting with any big announcements. It’s an introductory meeting [between the] President and Prime Minister.”