President Trump’s visit to Israel today was productive, though Israel has tactfully expressed concerns over some of Trump’s recent decisions, as Richard Wagner explains.
Trump has expressed his vocal and symbolic support for Israel throughout the campaign and his presidency. He broke with decades of precedent by moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, symbolically recognizing the contested city as Israel’s capital. However, very little has been done by the Trump administration to actually empower Israel. Trump’s desire to improve relations with Russia are worrisome to the Israelis, given Russia’s support for the Assad regime and to a lesser extent, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
There are two points of underlying tension between Trump and Israel:
- The recent sharing of confidential intelligence, provided by Israel, with Russia
- The very recent $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia
On the latter, Israel has an uneasy, if not icy alliance with Saudi Arabia, and would like to only keep them powerful enough to keep Iran at bay.
Tillerson addresses the press
During the flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel, Sec. of State Tillerson took questions from the press.
Q: Energy minister of Israel said Saudi arms deals are troubling. How do you respond? Were Israelis briefed?
A: “There has been nothing entered into with the arms sales agreements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries that do not fully allow us to fulfill our commitments to Israel and the longstanding security arrangements we have with Israel. I’m sure we can answer those questions and address the concerns they have.”
Q: Does the president plan to apologize for sharing Israeli intel with the Russians?
A: “I don’t know that there’s anything to apologize for.”
Q: What about their concerns?
A: “To the extent the Israelis have any questions, or clarification, I’m sure we’re happy to provide that.”
Many more questions were asked about Trump’s attitude towards Islam and combatting terrorism, and on these Trump has plenty of common ground with Israel, but these first few questions indicate that the relationship with Israel is somewhat strained.
Prime Minister Netanyahu
After a stop in Tel Aviv, the President and his crew were transported to the old city of Jerusalem, which was shut down for the visit. Trump’s entourage included the First Lady Melania, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Hope Hicks, Dina Powell, Jason Greenblatt, Gary Cohn, Stephen Miller, H.R. McMaster and Ambassador Dermer. They were welcomed by Israeli President Rivlin, Israel’s First Lady Nechama Rivlin, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife, Sara Ben-Artzi.
In Israel, the Prime Minister is the more powerful executive, though the President is the symbolic leader (much like a constitutional monarch). As such, President Rivlin gave the first welcoming speech, followed by PM Netanyahu.
Netanyahu noted the important symbolism of Trump being the first President to visit Israel during his first foreign trip (Obama had visited as a candidate, however). Noting the tensions Israel has with its icy ally Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu stated “Mr. President, you just flew from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, I hope that one day an Israeli prime minster will be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh.” Netanyahu expressed a continued desire to build on the peace recently made with Egypt, which is recently stabilized following the Arab Spring and the toppling of the Mubarak regime, which had been generally favorable to Israel. He also expressed a desire to peacefully resolve the continuous conflicts with the Palestinians, though Netanyahu is not known to be favorable to a two state solution, though he hasn’t rejected it all together.
If Trump and Netanyahu discussed Palestine and the two-state solution, they did so privately away from the press. They vaguely discussed peace efforts, but that is all the information we have right now. (If new information is made available, this article will be updated accordingly.) During a press conference later in the afternoon, however, the other point of contention came up – Trump revealing classified information to Russia.
As the press conference was concluding, Bloomberg’s Margaret Talev asked Netanyahu if he has any concerns about intelligence cooperation with the US and the intel shared with the Russians in the Oval Office. As this pertained directly to Trump, he interjected, “I never mentioned the word or the name Israel. Never mentioned during that conversation,” he said. “They’re all saying I did, so you have another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel.”
PM Netanyahu remained diplomatic and decided to give Trump some backup. “Intelligence cooperation is terrific. It’s never been better.” The press pool was ushered out.