The Israeli love affair with President Donald Trump is souring as promises have gone unfulfilled.
The Israeli public was very excited when Trump took office. They anticipated a fresh start after a fraught relationship with Barack Obama, who many thought was overly sympathetic to the Palestinians.
But reality has set in as all Trump’s earlier talk – of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, of not worrying about Jewish settlements in Arab land and of dropping insistence on the pesky two-state solution – appears to have been just that: talk.
“He’s like any politician,” said Shlamit Lev-ran, 24, an art student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “They say one thing and then after they’re elected they do another. I see no difference.”
“Trump and Obama, they want the same thing,” said Elie Adler, a 60-year-old shopkeeper in downtown Jerusalem. “They just serve it up in a different dish.”
Adler says he doesn’t think Trump and his deal-maker reputation will prove any more effective than Obama was in bringing a resolution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian standoff. For one, western logic simply won’t change the minds of very religious people.
“It’s very simple,” Adler said, before repeating a Hebrew phrase used by politicians who shift their positions: “What you see from here, you can’t see from there.”
All the trappings of a warm welcome are on display in anticipation of Trump’s arrival Monday. U.S. flags are flying alongside Israeli ones at Ben-Gurion International Airport, outside Tel Aviv. Posters declaring “Jerusalem welcomes Trump” hang across the city and are pasted to walls.
Yet there are signs of uncertainty: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered all of his Cabinet ministers to attend the airport welcome for Trump after he learned some planned to skip it, according to Army Radio.
There’s no question that Netanyahu is happier with Trump in office after an openly strained relationship with Obama. The two had significant ideological differences, from how to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict to their respective views of how to prevent Iran from making a nuclear bomb.
Trumps’ denunciation of Shiite Muslim Iran as well as his tough view of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas in his speech Sunday to leaders of Sunni Muslim nations gathered in Saudi Arabia will be warmly received here.
But Trump’s popularity among Israelis has dropped significantly since he took office. Only 56 percent of Israeli Jews consider Trump to be pro-Israel, a decline from the 79 percent who felt that way before the inauguration, according to a recent Jerusalem Post poll.
Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama, said a lot of Israelis have discovered two things: One that Trump is not turning out as they expected. And, two, that Obamas policies were not his own ideology hobby and instead policies based on American interests that have been conveyed from one administration to another, regardless of party and president.
“To me the policy looks much, much more similar to the Obama policy than was expected when Trump took office in November,” said Shapiro, who is now a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. “And Israeli leaders have noticed that. Right wing Israeli ministers have all of a sudden become all of a sudden very critical of President Trump that he hasn’t moved the embassy.”
Trump is coming in for criticism here for planning to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, in Bethlehem on the West Bank. It will be Trump’s second visit with Abbas in three weeks. Notably, Trump dropped the word “authority” from Abbas’ title in his Riyadh speech, calling Abbas simply Palestinian president.
Anger is also building over Trump’s failure to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That was a promise frequently made during the presidential campaign. But Trump no longer pledges that, and U.S. officials said the idea has been shelved for now after realization that such a move would deeply offend Palestinians – and Arabs at large – who see East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state.
When Netanyahu visited Washington in February, Trump upended long-held U.S. policy by withholding clear support for an independent Palestine, saying he was open to whatever solution Israelis and Palestinians agreed to. But in the months since, with his administration itself upended by the dismissal of his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, American advocacy of a two-state solution appears to be back as policy.
Last week, Trump’s current national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said Trump will call for Palestinian self-determination, setting off alarm bells among Israel’s far right who interpreted McMaster’s words as a renewed embrace of the two-state solution.
The Israeli right was already leery, after Trump asked Israel to “hold off on settlements for a bit” in hopes of finding a peace solution.
“Let’s see if he repeats ‘self-determination’,” said Michael Oren, a U.S.-born former ambassador to the United States who now serves as the deputy minister for diplomacy from the centrist Kulanu party. To capture how those words grate on the Israeli right, Oren called them “the S-D word.”
Obama paid a price for not visiting Israel early in his presidency; his first visit didn’t come until 2013, in his second term, and it’s still a sore point for some, an indication that Obama was always going to have a Palestinian tilt.
Now many Israelis are wondering if Trump is going to tilt that way, too.
“Israelis have noticed that he’s very interested in the Palestinians, too,” said Philip Gordon, Obama’s coordinator for the Middle East who’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
For Lev-ran’s friend Shlam Cohen, a 27-year-old history student, Trump’s evolution isn’t so surprising. The transition from candidate to president brings change.
“Eventually, reality takes over,” he said.