Trump in Israel, a test of the art of the deal
President Trump began a two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank on Monday, wading into a generations-old Middle East standoff that will pose an early test of whether his business deal-making skills can translate to the high-wire world of international diplomacy.
Air Force One touched down around noon at Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv, where the president and his family were greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. Mr. Trump had a day of symbolic visits ahead, before delving into the heart of the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians in pursuit of what he has called “the ultimate deal.”
Mr. Trump arrived on what was believed to be the first open, direct flight to Israel from Saudi Arabia, which do not have diplomatic relations, and said he had “found new reasons for hope” for peace during his meetings with Muslim leaders in the Saudi capital of Riyadh over the weekend.
“We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace,” Mr. Trump said during an airport arrival ceremony before flying by helicopter to Jerusalem. “But we can only get there working together. There is no other way.”
Mr. Netanyahu repeated his longstanding position that he “shares the commitment to peace” but with the same conditions as always. “Israel’s hand is extended in peace to all our neighbors, including the Palestinians,” he said. “The peace we seek is a genuine and durable one, in which the Israeli state is recognized, security remains in Israel’s hands, and the conflict ends once and for all.”
No previous American president has come to Israel this early in his tenure. Bill Clinton visited in his second year in office and Jimmy Carter in his third, while Richard M. Nixon, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all waited until their second terms to make the trip. American flags flew in Jerusalem, and Jewish and Christian holy sites prepared to host Mr. Trump, his wife, his daughter and his son-in-law.
But there were clashes in the West Bank as Mr. Trump arrived. More than 1,000 Palestinians marched to the Qalandiya checkpoint from Ramallah, carrying posters of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli prisons. Some carried pictures of Mr. Trump’s face with a red shoe print that read, in Arabic: “American policies are a footprint of shame on humanity’s forehead. Trump’s visit is a sale of disillusionment and a station to bypass Palestinian rights.”
When the demonstration reached the checkpoint, Israeli soldiers began firing tear-gas canisters, rubber bullets and live ammunition and about 50 Palestinian youths clashed with the soldiers.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson told reporters aboard Air Force One that he saw an opening to succeed where multiple presidents have failed.
“We have the opportunity to advance the peace discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” he said. “I think the president has indicated he’s willing to put his own personal efforts into this if the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership are ready to be serious about engaging, as well.”
But a visit that was once anticipated as a powerful expression of solidarity between two like-minded leaders, Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu, has become more complicated amid a series of logistical and political stress points.
Although Mr. Trump presented himself during last year’s campaign as the staunchest ally Israel could hope for in the White House, since taking office, he has backed away from some of his promises and adopted an approach closer to that of his predecessors.
Israelis had expected the United States to have announced by now plans to move its embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, as Mr. Trump had vowed to do “quickly.” But the American president has postponed that promise because of fears that it could provoke a backlash among Palestinians and their Arab allies, complicating peace negotiations. Mr. Trump’s full-throated defense of Israeli settlements has also evolved into a request that Mr. Netanyahu delay new projects.
The days leading up to Mr. Trump’s arrival underscored the potential for friction. Mr. Trump disclosed to Russia’s foreign minister and its ambassador to Washington last week sensitive information about an Islamic State plot that had originally come from Israel, potentially jeopardizing the Israeli intelligence source. American officials also declined to invite Mr. Netanyahu to accompany Mr. Trump to the Western Wall and would not say that the sacred site was part of Israel, actions that made many Israelis bristle.
A visit to the ancient desert fortress of Masada was canceled over the question of whether a helicopter could land at the top of the site, and Mr. Trump’s team wanted only a brief stop at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, which offended some Israelis.
The $110 billion in arms sales that Mr. Trump announced in Saudi Arabia before arriving was also a source of concern. Mr. Netanyahu had to order cabinet ministers to go to the arrival ceremony at the airport, after some had said they would not attend. Some Israeli officials said their main hope for the visit was to make sure that there was no great gaffe or misunderstanding.
Mr. Tillerson said the arms sales to the Saudis should not concern the Israelis. “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,” he said. “I’m sure we can answer those questions and address the concerns they have.”
Mr. Netanyahu has resolved not to mention the intelligence breach publicly, but Israeli officials and intelligence officers have privately expressed anger and frustration. Mr. Tillerson said the president had no need to express regret. “I don’t know that there’s anything to apologize for,” he said. “To the extent the Israelis have any questions, or clarification, I’m sure we’re happy to provide that.”
Despite all that, much as he was Saudi Arabia, Mr. Trump is viewed by many in Israel as a welcome change from Mr. Obama, whose relationship with Mr. Netanyahu soured early on, after Mr. Obama called for a settlement freeze, and only worsened from there.
One of the primary goals of Mr. Trump’s trip was to solidify the emerging alignment between Israel and Sunni Arab states against the Shiite-led Iran. He sees a peace agreement as part of that effort, and hopes to use an “outside-in” strategy of enlisting Arab neighbors to help resolve the long-running dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.
After a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, Mr. Trump suggested that Arab states like Saudi Arabia were readier to make peace with Israel because of their shared antipathy for Iran. “There is a growing realization among your Arab neighbors that they have common cause with you in the threat posed by Iran, and it is indeed a threat, there’s no question about that,” he said.
Mr. Trump arrived just a couple of weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 when, among other territorial gains, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and occupied the West Bank, as it does to this day.
Until Mr. Trump, recent American presidents had said that any final resolution of the dispute would end with the creation of a Palestinian state that could exist side by side with Israel. But Mr. Trump has abandoned that assumption, saying that he would be happy with any solution that satisfied the two sides.
After his meeting with Mr. Rivlin, Mr. Trump visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, home of what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus Christ, and then headed to the Western Wall, the central place for Jewish prayer. Later he was scheduled to holdi talks and dine with Mr. Netanyahu.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump is to travel the short distance to Bethlehem, in the West Bank, to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Trump is then scheduled to return to Jerusalem to lay a wreath at Yad Vashem and to deliver a speech at the Israel Museum.
Mr. Netanyahu, who has staked much on his relationship with Mr. Trump, seemed intent on erasing any doubts about their fledgling friendship, offering what he called a “very warm welcome” at the airport and calling the American president “Don” and “Donald.” Mr. Trump, for his part, appeared happy to see Mr. Netanyahu.
“Hello, my friend,” Mr. Trump said when he stepped onto the tarmac.
“Welcome, our good friend,” Mr. Netanyahu responded with relish.