As the joint press conference by President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rolled on, it became clear that their prepared remarks were going to contain very little of substance. Trump looked stiff and uncomfortable as he read prepared remarks—so much so that he seemed visibly relieved when he added a few ad lib words of his own. Netanyahu spoke with great care, knowing that his real audience was back in Israel and that the coalition partners to his right needed to be placated.
But in the question and answer period, things got more interesting.
First, we had the clearest indication yet that the United States will support Netanyahu in stepping back from the two-state solution. Trump stated that he would support “the one that both parties like.” Netanyahu stated unambiguously that his red line is security control over all the territory to the Jordan River. That precludes any possibility of a sovereign Palestinian state.
While this may have been the most politically significant outcome of the press conference, the most eye-opening moment was when Trump was asked to directly denounce anti-Semitism. He didn’t even come close to doing so, side-stepping the question with a ham-handed response about all the love we were going to see in his administration and a mention of his son-in-law and daughter.
Shortly after, Netanyahu stepped up to defend Trump, assuring everyone that no one was a greater friend to the Jewish people or the Jewish state than the new President. As Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer tweeted, “Rabbi Netanyahu ends the press conference giving Trump a ‘Kosher’ stamp on his love for Jews. Many US Jews won’t like that.”
Not only many, a very clear majority won’t like it. Opinion on whether Trump himself is anti-Semitic is split among Jews, but concern over his actions is widespread. Trump’s connection to white nationalists through his aide, former Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, and his support from that sector have concerned Jews across the United States from the beginning. His refusal to acknowledge the unique Jewish connection to the Holocaust added a good deal of fuel to that fire.
Trump’s performance today will make it worse. The question he was asked was very specifically about rising anti-Semitism since his election. He did not acknowledge that rise, which is by now very well-documented. Nor did he denounce anti-Semitism, not even with a pro forma nod, saying it is not a good thing, something all but his most bigoted supporters would probably have shrugged off. He didn’t say he disagreed with it in any way, in fact.
But there was Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of the Jewish State, the man who has called the accurate labeling of products from Israeli settlements anti-Semitic. That man defended Trump from the accusation. That man, the same one who refused to comment at all on Trump’s refusal to mention Jews at all on Holocaust Remembrance Day, doubled down on his defense of Trump’s questionable actions today.
Coming into today’s meeting, the Trump Administration’s approach to Israel, the Palestinians and the broader Middle East was unclear. It’s only slightly less so now. But we do know a couple of things.
We know that Trump is not going to hold fast to a two-state solution. The fact that he has refused to talk with the Palestinian leadership (CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s meeting yesterday with Mahmoud Abbas notwithstanding) reinforces the hints that were dropped at today’s presser that Trump is seriously considering pursuing a deal between Israel and the Gulf monarchies and from there hoping to conclude a deal with the Palestinians. This ambition reflects a real lack of understanding of the political dynamics in the Arab world, and is almost certainly doomed to failure, but it seems that is a lesson Trump must learn for himself.
We also know that concerns over anti-Semitism matter not at all to the President or, quite sadly, to the Prime Minister. Those concerns were treated by both men today as nothing more than a political toy, a matter of no concern beyond how it needed to be handled and how it could be manipulated for political gain.
In these conditions, it is difficult indeed to fathom how things can improve for Israel, let alone for the Palestinians. Indeed, based on what we saw today, any movement from the already terrible status quo is almost certain to make matters worse.