By Marilyn Cooper
After a whirlwind 36-hour trip to Israel that included a historic first visit by a sitting American president to the Western Wall, President Donald Trump left the region sounding convinced that he had partners for long-term peace with Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The reaction on the ground was less certain. Moment spoke with Gil Troy, a McGill University professor and U.S. presidential historian, to get the view from Jerusalem and his assessment of Trump’s visit to Israel.
What do you think President Trump’s goals were for this visit and do you think, in his mind, he believes he achieved them?
As a political historian, I would say that most trips abroad are filled with great hopes and, while they rarely end up in disappointment, they also rarely end up in tremendous achievements; Trump’s trip lines up with that. It seems that he has a somewhat simplistic world view and a somewhat exaggerated view of his own abilities, such that he probably went into the trip thinking, “Oh, I’ll go to the Middle East, I’ll make peace.” I genuinely think that he really believes that he is the great dealmaker and that he would be able to advance the cause of peace. I’m sure that he’s gotten so much love and flattery that he’s coming home feeling like he’s moved the needle. However, it will take a while to see just how much, or how little—most likely how little—this trip moved the needle.
What’s your best guess about the long-term impact of Trump’s visit to the region?
First, let’s consider the superficiality of a four-day trip to the region which included a 36 hour trip in Israel, a quick trip to Mahmoud Abbas and a quick trip to Saudi Arabia. That’s well suited to sword dances and speeches. I think after all the noise that he’s generated back home, he’s learned that first presidential lesson that trips abroad can be lots of fun and sometimes be the most entertaining part for you as well as healing for you as a president or of your presidency.
Judging by what was said publicly, the one potential innovation was, after years of the same kind of peace processing, there was at least opening up a Saudi initiative. The whole notion of trying to get Israel to make peace with the entire Arab world, not with just the Palestinians, is also creative and somewhat of a change. But if you read all that was said by Bibi and Trump in their speeches and the all indications from the Palestinian National Authority, we ended up hearing the same positions expressed. There was no Oslo popping out of a rabbit’s hat.
What are the takeaways from the trip?
Trump comes back with an album filled with happy moments and great photo-ops. That kind of personal chemistry is important ultimately in diplomacy and in a presidency, but no major breakthrough.
You’ve said that his trip lacked coherence. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Let’s put this in perspective. This is not Anwar Sadat coming to Jerusalem when the simple act of going was a game changer. This wasn’t even Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton flying into Israel to advance the peace process at a time when things had gotten touchy. This is really kind of an introductory trip. And as with so many things in the Trump presidency, it reflects a great sense of confidence in his own personality and professional charisma and an attitude of, “If I could just go there, I can do the deal.” But again, as a historian I am aware that most often with these trips it takes months or even years for them to bear fruit. We’ve seen no indicator that there was any kind of breakthrough, any kind of real accomplishment, any kind of aha moment. Nothing that will make any of the major leaders say, “Oh, wow, it’s time for me to start negotiating. Oh, wow, it’s time for me to start changing my position.”
How would you compare Trump’s visit to the region to those made by Obama?
One way of understanding this trip is by seeing it as the un-Obama trip. As healing, in Trump’s mind, to the Obama presidency and a repudiation of the Obama presidency. If you compare Trump’s Middle East trip to Obama’s first Middle East voyage in June 2009, Obama goes to Cairo of course; Trump goes to Saudi Arabia. Obama makes overtures to the Iranians even though he’s in Cairo, and is really talking about Islam in general. And while Trump’s speech speaks about Islam in general, Trump’s choice of Saudi Arabia and his focus on Saudi Arabia was really an understanding that the Islamic world right now is divided between the Sunnis and Shi’as, as it has been for a very long time. The Americans have to start playing that game, this was a real attempt to embrace and prop up the Saudi Arabians and Sunni lines at the expense of Tehran and the Shi’a lines. That’s one major difference.
The second major difference is that Obama offended many Israelis, particularly many Zionists, either on the right or the left, because in trying to create equivalence and make an overture to the Muslim world, rather than balancing it out with an early trip to Israel, it would be years literally before he visited Israel as president. Instead, he went to Buchenwald. I emphasize the Zionists—not just Israelis—because it underlined the Obama narrative in which Zionism was about the Holocaust as opposed to the deeper historical forces that shaped Israel decades before the Holocaust.
Second, politically, emotionally it seemed like a cheap trick. You tried out Elie Wiesel and Buchenwald and all of the emotion around the Holocaust as a way of saying to the Jews, “You see? I’m okay. You see? I’m playing to you and I understand the American Jewish sensibility.” But it wasn’t really respecting the Israeli sensibility which wanted a trip and wanted the equivalence in that way.
What was the reaction like on the ground to his visit in Israel?
The first and biggest reaction was, especially in Jerusalem, “Oh my goodness, what a mess.” With the traffic and the shutdowns, it’s been a two-day secular Yom Kippur in that cars aren’t moving. Where I live, in the German Colony, we heard the burst of eight helicopters arriving yesterday and taking off, literally, right across from my house this evening. Second, two months ago if I had said, “Donald Trump is going to come,” to most Israelis, there would have been great expectation and a kind of euphoria. Now it was a little bit more restrained, especially going in, because in the weeks before there had been all these misfires in terms of Trump speaking about one state, then two states and blaming the settlements and then blaming the Palestinians.
The trip itself went smoothly. I think the warmth that was conveyed between Bibi and Trump, between Sara and Melania, between the Trump family and the State of Israel and the Jewish people was such that, for all the pain and for all the worried anticipation beforehand, most Israelis left feeling pretty good. At the end of the day, as an American living in Israel, I realize just how big America is and how small Israel is, and how desperate for validation. Israel now feels validated by the fact that Trump was here with Air Force One, Marine One and all the pomp and circumstance and the real power and symbolism of the American presidency being used to embrace this small, little Jewish state. Israelis still pinch ourselves and go, “Wow, we’ve got a state. What a novelty.”
Overall, how would you grade the trip?
In a presidency which has had week after week after week of C’s and D’s, this is the first week where we’re talking about A’s and B’s. There has to be a true historic outcome before giving an A, but in a presidency which has been so problematic and, frankly, so incompetent and divisive—it’s such a solid B that it almost feels like a B+ or even an A-. He followed that first Hippocratic rule of the politician, “Do no harm.” The simple act of finally having a week, or at least three or four days, where he did no harm in this presidency is an extraordinary accomplishment.