Dr Ron Weiser AM
It’s AIPAC time again.
A year ago about 18,000 members of American Jewry’s prime pro-Israel advocacy organisation was trying to work out whether and how to welcome Donald Trump to its annual conference.
And let’s be clear, since Israel is now unfortunately struggling to retain general American bipartisan support, that is both Republican and Democrat, those divisions are being reflected more and more within US Jewry itself as the vast majority of American Jewry are Democrats.
Which also makes it harder and harder to ascertain just how representative AIPAC is of American Jewry generally.
Last year, AIPAC President Lillian Pinkus saw fit to issue a public apology for some of Trump’s comments the day after he made.
This year she personally introduced Vice President Mike Pence to the attendees.
Unlike President Trump, Pence has actually been to Israel, indeed a number of times.
His speech was full of emotion and love for Israel and the Jewish People and he was extremely well received.
What continues to be interesting though in contradistinction to almost every other Trump policy arena, is the lack of speed in actually implementing policy vis a vis Israel and the Middle East.
Pence’s speech did nothing to quicken that.
Nor did it contain any policy details.
He suggested that moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem was still on the agenda.
“After decades of simply talking about it, the president of the United States is giving serious consideration to moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,”
but he was as vague as it was possible to be on the conflict.
Without mentioning any of the buzzwords such as “settlements” Pence said:
“there will undoubtedly have to be compromises”.
And then the Vice President added:
“I can assure you all that President Trump will never compromise the safety and security of the Jewish state of Israel.”
You will recall that despite the Israeli right wing believing that Trump was the equivalent of the messiah – he surprised everyone when he told Prime Minister Netanyahu at their joint press conference last month that he:
“would have to hold back on the settlements for a little bit and would have to compromise too.”
“You realise that, right?”
To date no-one is really clear on what compromises Trump will actually want from Israel and how far he will or will not push Netanyahu to get them.
However the call from Trump for Israeli compromises has been echoed even at AIPAC by Pence and generally by all of Israel’s other supporters within the administration, without exception.
The star of AIPAC was undoubtedly US Ambassador to the UN – Nikki Haley.
Who can doubt Haley and her actions already in just such a short time at the UN. She received multiple ovations and was clearly the crowd favourite as she produced one memorable statement after another, such as:
“You’re not going to take our number one democratic friend in the Middle East and beat up on them”
And yet, Haley too is on the record supporting the two state solution.
Speaker of the House Ryan also took the podium. He concentrated on the Iran deal, BDS and criticising Obama’s record. But he avoided any topic that might require Israel to “compromise”.
Prior to the AIPAC conference Trump’s personal envoy Jason Greenblatt, travelled to the Middle East on a “listening tour” and surprised many with his “evenhandedness”. Not only did the now kippa less Greenblatt meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu and separately with Israeli settlement leaders, but he also went to Ramallah to meet with Abbas after which Greenblatt tweeted:
“President Abbas & I discussed how to make progress toward peace, building capacity of Palestinian security forces & stopping incitement”
It is fair to say that many in Israel have been caught off guard by presupposing Trump’s views which may or may not turn out to be as previously understood.
But the messages on the need for some sort of decision on future settlement construction is a consistent theme across Trump’s people to date. And if it was totally in synch with Israel’s position, we should have known by now.
For his part, Netanyahu told AIPAC via video link that:
“Israel is committed to working with President Trump to advance peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors”
One rather interesting aside occurred in regards to the next 10 year US aid package to Israel.
Netanyahu originally decided to determine the size of the package with then President Obama, not being sure he would be able to get a better deal out of either Hillary Clinton or Trump.
Many criticised him at the time urging Israel to wait till Trump got elected in order to get that better deal.
Turns out Netanyahu made the correct decision.
In his AIPAC address Netanyahu praised Trump for not cutting Obama’s aid package (without actually mentioning Obama), despite Trump cutting the State Department’s budget by 28%.
As Netanyahu said:
“You see it in the budget requests submitted by President Trump which leaves aid to Israel fully funded even amid federal belt-tightening.”
Just as domestically Netanyahu is trying not to look like the most left wing member of his own government – Trump can hardly be seen to be financially less supportive of Israel than Obama.
Whilst Obama supported Israel in the military and intelligence spheres, he left a lot of daylight between the US and Israel on the diplomatic level.
All three levels are critical to Israel’s security and they are all interrelated.
To date Trump has been magnificent in the diplomatic arena.
But what he plans for Israel in the future is still an unknown quantity.
As far as Israel is concerned, it is a matter of having her priorities understood.
Trump sees himself as the ultimate deal maker, and as deal making requires something to be given to all sides in any compromise, the real question is what he will try and pressure Israel to give ground on, and what he will be happy to see as “wins” on the Israeli side of the ledger.
Netanyahu is being very careful to try and ensure that those “wins” relate to matters higher up the Israeli list of priorities.
Trump by his phone call to Abbas, invitation to the White House and visits by Greenblatt has somewhat resurrected Abbas’ standing and allowed Abbas to take centre stage at the Arab League meeting just concluded. Also attended by Greenblatt it should be noted.
However he has simultaneously placed the blame for the lack of a deal at Abbas’ door due to Palestinian intransigence and incitement.
In regards to Israel, Trump has shifted the focus away from the existing settlements to that of the possible building of new settlements. Or possibly the potential footprint expansion of the existing settlement blocks. Or both.
In terms of settlements, despite announcements of building, the real focus in Israel is on what is actually happening.
That is that Netanyahu at the direction of Israel’s High Court, evicted the 40 or so families from the decades old unauthorised settlement of Amona.
Amona was the largest of the unauthorised outposts by the way, so ponder on how small some of the other outposts are.
Netanyahu has also repeatedly promised that he will build them a new settlement as compensation.
What makes this such a hot issue is what puts the lie to the “Israel’s settlement building is the problem” claim.
This Netanyahu commitment is so controversial because all of those who were claiming that Israel was gobbling up the West Bank for years, are now shouting that no matter how small and no matter where the new Amona might be, it is damaging to peace because this would be, what has become the common refrain, “the first new Israeli settlement built in 25 years”.
With all the claims of Israeli settlement building are we now finally hearing something closer to the actual truth – that if it is built, this would be the first new settlement in some 25 years?
Netanyahu is trying to convince Trump that the Israeli government needs to set up a new Amona for Netanyahu’s own domestic political health.
Whether or even if it is built and what might fall within the parameters Trump feels necessary to set before he meets with Abbas, is the open question that is keeping Greenblatt traversing the Middle East.
Whichever way one looks at it, it would appear that initially Trump is certainly angling to set conditions so as not to disrupt his own attempts to go for some version of the two state solution between Israel and Abbas.
Should that fail, then Netanyahu will want to do as much as possible to ensure Trump does not blame Israel for that failure.
Dr Ron Weiser AM
Dr. Ron Weiser AM is the Zionist Federation of Australia Public Affairs Chairman and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.