State of Confusion

Jewish Light Editorial

Almost lost in the whirlwind of news regarding cemetery desecrations and the arrest in St. Louis of a suspect in some of the bomb threats at Jewish community centers is the fact that last month, President Donald Trump held his first face-to-face talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Like many episodes with the new administration, it left as much confusion as it did clarity.

In a joint news conference at the White House after their talks, both leaders reaffirmed the historic and enduring bond between the United States and the only democracy in the violence-torn Middle East.  

“With this visit, the United States reaffirms our unbreakable bond with our cherished ally, Israel,” Trump said, using the exact word that his predecessor, Barack Obama, used to describe the U.S.-Israel relationship.

It is no secret that Netanyahu and Obama had a testy relationship on a personal level, punctuated by sharp opposition by Netanyahu over the Iran nuclear deal and the failure of the United States to veto a one-sided, anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations Security Council in the closing days of Obama’s administration.  

Trump had assured Netanyahu that his presidency would “have Israel’s back.”

At a news conference in Washington, Netanyahu said, “Our alliance is based on a deep bond of common values and common interests. And, increasingly, those values and interests are under attack by one malevolent force: radical Islamic terror.” 

He praised Trump for having “shown great clarity in confronting this challenge head-on.”

The warm and friendly exchanges between Trump and Netanyahu were not unexpected, but great clarity was hardly the rule.  

Headlines from their news conference stressed two controversial areas: an ambiguous comment by Trump in which he seemed to back off the decadeslong bipartisan goal of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine peace process, and a request by Trump in which he urged Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” 

Both seemed to reverse previously stated positions taken by Trump. 

Asked point blank whether his administration supports a two-state solution, Trump said, “So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.”

That comment sparked confusion among journalists such as  Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, who pointed out that for decades, presidents in both major parties have backed the goal of two states, a Jewish State of Israel living side-by-side in peace and security with an Arab State of Palestine. 

 If Israel were to formally annex all of the West Bank, including areas under the administration of the Palestinian Authority, it would face a stark choice: give up being a democracy and risk becoming a genuine apartheid state, or give the Palestinians the right to vote, which would place the one state under the control of the Palestinians.  

Regarding the confusion of the president’s seeming ambiguity on whether he continues to support a two-state solution, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sought to reassure the world that the president continues to support a Palestinian state but wants a “thinking out of the box” approach, according to The New York Times ( 

“We absolutely support a two-state solution,” Haley said in answer to a question after a U.N. Security Council meeting devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Haley’s “clarifications” seem more like walk-backs, they served to reduce concern among allies and adversaries alike about the Trump administration’s commitment to traditional foreign policy stances. In addition to Haley, there are some otherwise and experienced people on Trump’s foreign policy team.  The president would be well-served to seek  their counsel before commenting on sensitive issues.

As to Trump’s gentle urging to Netanyahu that he “hold back on settlements a little bit,” that statement is wise. Trump had previously said that his administration, in contrast to those of previous presidents from both parties, did not believe that Israeli settlements were “an obstacle to peace” but that expanding settlements into disputed land in the West Bank “may not be helpful.”  

Trump seemed to signal that his administration will not give a blank check of approval to the rapid and significant settlement expansion favored by hardline members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. Ideally, that sentiment won’t be subject to further clarification.

So while the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders of two historic allies was positive on a personal level, some points of difference emerged, which is only natural. That kind of tension can exist between friendly allies without threatening the integrity of an ongoing positive, constructive relationship.