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Aharoni: Trump in Israel – Israeli Public Opinion Matters

Image: Aharoni: Trump in Israel – Israeli Public Opinion Matters
President Donald Trump waves on the South Lawn prior to his departure from the White House May 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C. President Trump is traveling for his first foreign trip to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, Vatican, and attending a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium and a G7 summit in Taormina, Italy. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

By    |   Saturday, 20 May 2017 03:14 PM

President Trump’s upcoming visit to Israel will be the eleventh presidential visit in Israel’s 69 years of existence. This is hardly a spectacular record considering the intimacy between the two nations and the fact that Israel is the most reliable, like-minded, and ancillary ally of the United States in a region widely viewed as hostile to American values. The first president to visit Israel for an official state visit was Richard Nixon in 1974. President Trump will become the sixth sitting president to hold an official visit to Israel.

I hope you won't think it inappropriate, but as the president departs on this important tour, I'd urge him and his team to bear these critical points in mind:

Israeli Public Matters

Undoubtedly, the big question for every Israeli is what President Trump will say or do about the conflict. But here’s an interesting political fact: most Israelis believe that the two-state solution is the only solution yet they do not believe it’s feasible. The solution for this seemingly fantastic political enigma is quite simple. Since the summer of 2000, most Israelis changed their views as to the root cause to the conflict. The conversation gradually shifted from "territorial" to "existential."

For years, Israelis believed that the conflict was essentially territorial. The common belief was that the 1967 War was the "unfinished business" between the two peoples. At the core of the solution, they believed, was a simple bargain: land to the Palestinians in return for security to the Israelis. An entire political camp was based on the notion of "territorial compromise."

This concept, once a formidable and leading political platform that brought Yitzhak Rabin to power in 1992, was badly injured by three dramatic events: first was the rejection of the Clinton Plan by Arafat in Camp David in 2000 and the ensuing Intifada, the second was the Palestinian bellicose reaction to Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza in the summer of 2005 (and the election of Hamas in its aftermath), and the third was the Palestinian rejection of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s far-reaching territorial deal in 2008. These, combined with the continued shelling of rockets onto Israel’s southern region for the past decade, have led many Israelis to question the validity of the territorial argument and gave rise to the notion that the "unfinished business" was not the 1967 Six-Day War, as previously suggested, but rather the 1948 "War of Independence" which was over Israel’s right to exist.

If, indeed, we have moved to an existentialism orientation, rather than territorialism, what can President Trump do to move a solution forward? The answer is in his own words from his 1987 book: "I like thinking big. I always have. To me it's very simple: if you're going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big."

One idea would be to address the Israeli public directly. Public addresses play an important role in establishing relationships between leaders and audiences. An effective public address can even serve as a psychological breakthrough and ignite profound changes. It would be safe to assume that if not for President Anwar Sadat’s speech in Jerusalem in 1977, it would have been practically impossible for Prime Minister Menachem Begin to sell the Peace Agreement with Egypt to the Israeli Public. Sadat provided the breakthrough, catharsis, and inspiration that fueled the process for years to come.

Should he choose to share his vision for a "grand solution" with the Israeli public and hold a similar rally, President Trump, who has been a well-established brand name in Israel decades before he entered politics, can expect to be greeted similarly; with warmth, admiration, and enthusiasm.

Israel’s Commander-in-Chief is the Cabinet

In Israel, the role of commander-in-chief, rather than being the responsibility of a single individual, as in the USA, is performed by the cabinet. The Prime Minister heads the cabinet and exerts a great deal of influence, but ultimately, decisions are made by this top high-ranking governing body. The cabinet is comprised of several political parties; each has its own agenda, constituency, and platform. Israel’s legislative body, the Knesset, with its 120 elected members, has displayed acute weakness and has suffered from a bad public image. Populism, reckless legislation, and fragmentation all contributed to this erosion. Surely, the Knesset’s weakness is unhealthy for Israel. But it is also an American interest to empower Israel’s constituent assembly.

Only a mere three presidents have addressed the Knesset: Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. President Trump could become the fourth president to do so thus recognizing the importance of Israel’s legislative body. Trump’s addressing of the Knesset might not only enhance the Knesset’s image but also prove useful and instrumental for the advancement for Trump’s own plans for the Middle East. 

Israel Is Not a By-Product of the Holocaust

Of course, the Holocaust played an important role in the founding of the state. It was a dramatic catalyst. The reparations from Germany helped Israel to survive economically. Yet, it is an indisputable fact: Israel was in the making decades prior to the Holocaust. The modern State of Israel is a creation of the Zionist movement. David Ben Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, along with his peers, designed a meticulous nation-building process that turned the question of Jewish independence almost into an inevitability.

The narrative, which considers Israel’s establishment as post-Holocaust compensation, is usually used by Israel’s detractors. For them, Zionism is a product of 19th century European colonialism. Post-Holocaust European guilt consented the Zionists’ robbing of land from its indigenous inhabitants. While many uninformed find this narrative instinctively correct and even compelling, it is deeply offensive to Israelis. It ignores a glorious chapter in Jewish history, one of growth, construction, enthusiasm, and pride. President Obama’s decision to avoid Israel in 2009, after visiting Egypt, was received by many Israelis with disappointment. Instead, President Obama chose to visit Buchenwald, not Israel, right after delivering a programmatic and forthcoming speech in Cairo that was meant to address the concerns of the Arab and Muslim world. Obama said then: "Threatening Israel with destruction or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews is deeply wrong and only serves to evoke in the minds of the Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve." Powerful words. They should have been conveyed in Israel. Many perceived his decision to balance his Cairo speech by visiting a concentration camp as an indirect validation of the narrative that correlates Israel’s creation with the Holocaust.

The Only Boycott Is the Arab Boycott

The last two U.S. administrations addressed directly and in a very straightforward manner the efforts to isolate Israel through divestiture, sanctions, and boycotts. Top American decision-makers used it as an implied threat. If no progress will be achieved with the Palestinians, was the message, then the boycott will intensify. The only problem is that the only boycott is the Arab boycott. There's no other boycott. Not by foreign governments, corporations, or banks. On the contrary, Israel has never been better. Israel’s economy is thriving. It is a major hub of creativity in all walks of life, not just in high-tech, and a world leader in the creation of conceptual products. Israelis are welcome to do business or study in most countries. The only boycott Israel has ever endured was the Arab economic boycott of 1945 (three years prior to statehood). It was imposed and enacted by the Arab League. For many years, fueled by the American-Soviet rivalry, it was implemented both directly and indirectly. Israel of the 60’s and the 70’s was deprived of access to major goods and services originating from countries such as Japan, France and, yes, even the United States. In response Israel decided to rely on human capital. The result is today’s advanced knowledge-based economy of problem-solvers, if you please, the "Can-Do Nation." Today, the European Union is Israel’s largest trade partner and GDP per capita is fast approaching the European standard. None of these things can be said about the boycotters themselves.

So, why was the "boycott conversation" adopted so readily by leading American decision-makers? Simply because they took their cue from their Israeli counterparts. The boycott conversation is alive and kicking mostly in Israel and it serves a domestic political need. It was eagerly embraced by almost all political parties. Israelis live in constant fear of isolation and so everybody in Israel is fighting the boycott, alas the wrong one. Instead of dealing with the real problem, the unfair treatment by intellectuals and academics, they fight powerless fringe elements thus helping them to amplify their messages. The real effort should take place in the realm of ideas, academic research, and the intellectual sphere. It would be a missed opportunity for this administration to adopt the position of previous administrations on the question of boycott and sanctions.

Henry Kissinger is credited for the famous quote "Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy." For any American leader, taking pointers from the cacophony of Israel’s internal and intense political discussion is highly inadvisable.

Ambassador Ido Aharoni is a Global Distinguished Professor for International Relations at New York University. He served as policy adviser to Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians and was a member of Israel’s official delegation to the White House for the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993.

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Henry Kissinger is credited for the famous quote "Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy." For any American leader, taking pointers from the cacophony of Israel’s internal and intense political discussion is highly inadvisable.
trump, israel, nixon
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2017-14-20
Saturday, 20 May 2017 03:14 PM
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