Kafe Knesset for May 22
The Eagle Has Landed: President Donald Trump arrived in Israel Monday. He was welcomed on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport by almost all of the government’s ministers and deputy ministers who waited in the sun for hours for his arrival. The ministers did not suffer in silence, of course. A day earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered all ministers to appear, because hardly any of them were planning to attend and he was worried about being embarrassed. Culture Minister Miri Regev was particularly unhappy with the practice and complained on Monday that it is not respectful to the Government of Israel or to Trump. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon boycotted the occasion.
Every minister who was there got a chance to share his or her two cents with POTUS. Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who often laments that Bibi doesn’t tell Trump what Israel really wants, said “It is the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification, and we expect you to be the first President to recognize a united Jerusalem.” Trump responded: “That’s a good one.” Trump also complimented Regev on her dress. And, after introducing him to the first Druse minister Israel has ever had, Netanyahu had to steer Trump away from Ayoub Kara, who was talking too much for the premier’s taste.
Lemme take a selfie: But the highlight of Trump’s receiving line was when Israel’s aspiring version of Trump, renegade Likud MK Oren Hazan, pushed ahead and took a selfie with POTUS. There is no other way to say it: Hazan LOVES Trump. He endorsed Trump long before anyone thought he would win even the GOP primary. Hazan has compared himself to Trump many times. Trump is also the only person Hazan follows on Twitter. Netanyahu tried to stop the selfie and push Hazan’s hand away, but Hazan still got it and posted it on social media soon after.
Fake news, Sarah Netanyahu edition: Then, there was Sarah Netanyahu. Matching the carpet in her red sheath dress and pumps, Netanyahu’s wife was all smiles, practically fawning over First Lady Melania Trump. At the end, while the two first couples walked towards Trump’s chopper, Sarah said that they have a lot in common, because “the majority of the people in Israel, unlike the media, they love us.” POTUS replied: “We have something very much in common.” Bibi: “Sounds familiar.”
Kafe Knesset sat down with Likud Tourism minister Yariv Levin ahead of the President’s arrival. Levin is considered one of Netanyahu’s closest political confidants, and is also one of the Likud’s strongest right wingers. He is convinced that “it is only a matter of time before the US illusions fade.”
KK: After the elections the Israeli right had very high expectations from President Trump, and it seems that many of these expectations have been shattered. What happened?
Levin: “I think the President is still in the process of formulating his policy. There are definitely things that are changes for the good – the absolute support in the UN and other international institutions, his different approach to the issue of terrorism and the fact that he came to visit here at the beginning of his term, all unlike the previous president. The range of agreement is much broader than it was before. For example, the fact that Trump did not make the Two-State solution an ideal everyone should bend over, or Nikki Haley’s pro-Israel statements and positions. These are big and significant things that I would not underestimate.
“But there are certainly things that we expected would be done differently, first and foremost the US Embassy move. There was an explicit commitment and the natural expectation is that it will be fulfilled. This is not only a symbolic act, but a clear political concept that creates an equation that tells the Palestinians for the first time that time is playing against them. They should be trying to reach an agreement just like anyone else. Such a policy could have been based on an Embassy move, and I’m afraid that if it does not happen, we will lose that policy as well, and this will be a very big mistake.”
KK: So far. it appears that the Trump government’s policy is similar to the Obama administration – there is a de facto settlement freeze.
Levin: “This is not true. There is no de facto freeze. There is a dramatic change in Jerusalem and there are also actions elsewhere. I do not propose to say things that are not true. The basic approach of the two sides – US and Israel – now says that we will reach understandings that Israel can live with and not make an issue about it all the time, is a very important change. There is now an American understanding that even large-scale construction activities are not contrary to American policy and will not lead to condemnations. I think we will see the plans advance soon, and of course, some of the disagreement will be discussed during the President’s visit.”
KK: Do you sense that the PM is feeling pressure from the President’s visit?
Levin: “Certainly not. There is vigilance towards such an important visit. No one takes this visit with indifference. It is impossible to have any sense about Trump’s policy because its has not finalized it yet. Therefore, the trip is very important because we definitely want to influence this policy. I am quite sure that in the end, this administration will also discover, like all the administrations before it, that there is no partner on the other side. That the Palestinians do not want peace, and even if they want it, they cannot reach it. That they lie, deceive and encourage terrorism. I only hope that when the administration finds out this truth, and it probably wont take long, it will not choose the path chosen by the previous administration and blame Israel for it.”
KK: Last year, when the PM was trying to launch a regional process with the Palestinians and attempted to form a unity government with the Zionist Union, you were one of the main figures who thwarted the move and pushed instead to bring Avigdor Liberman in. If Netanyahu tries to make political changes again, will you act in the same manner?
Levin: “The agreement with the Labor Party was never competed because they wanted us to change the government’s policy and we did not agree to that. This is still true. If the Labor Party changes its mind and agrees to enter a government that operates on the basis of our positions, there is definitely something to talk about. The chances of this happening are very small, I don’t see that we are about to change any policy, I don’t recognize such an intention and don’t think it will happen. Netanyahu did not suffer eight years of difficult battles and disagreements with the previous administration in order to accept a policy he didn’t agree to in the last 8 years.”