The Trump-Kim Show Should Teach Israel How Little Trump's Support Is Worth

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu at the White House

Likud cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi was quick on the send button. “Today was a historic day in #Singapore,” he tweeted elatedly as the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit wrapped up. “It was the latest signal that the @RealDonaldTrump Administration will not tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of radical and dangerous regimes. Hopefully the mullahs in #Iran will get the message loud and clear.”

This isn't an official statement of the government of Israel. But it fits very closely with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reflex of extravagant praise for the man now occupying the Oval Office.

The kindest reading: Hanegbi was tweeting out of cynical understanding of what it takes to stay on Trump's good side. The alternative—that he believed he what he said—would mean that he, his boss, and his party totally misread the implications of the summit for Israel and the Middle East. 

The rule is: When a foreign official or politician praises Trump, there's an inverse relation between sincerity and self-interest.

The spectacle in Singapore should worry anyone in Israel—yes, including Netanyahu and friends. In a sane world, it would prove to Americans who have embraced Trump because he's “good for Israel” that they are terribly overconfident. Leaving those two groups aside, those hoping to see a workable resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict has even more reason to be concerned. 

Start with the problem that Hanegbi sought to deny: Iran. A few weeks ago, Trump pulled the United States out of the JCPOA, the accord meant to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It included strict inspections to make sure Iran was keeping the deal. It took years of sanctions and diplomacy to reach. 

Trump trashed it. 

Now Trump meets with the North Korean dictator, and signs a joint statement that vaguely calls for “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” With no clarity about what that means, no mechanism to make it happen, and certainly no verification process, Trump treats Kim as his new bestie and announces, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” 

One potential lesson for Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is that he should immediately offer a “historic meeting” with Trump, praise the Great Dealmaker in the one-on-one, and be on his way to a new accord with no irksome inspections. As Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment points out, Khamenei is probably too proud and dogmatic for that. 

The other possible lesson for Iran is that when you make an agreement with America before you have a bomb, America won't honor it. On the other hand, if you make an agreement on nukes after you already have a bomb, you yourself don't need to honor it. From an Iranian perspective, the logical thing to do is to work as quickly as possible to go nuclear.

This should scare people in Israel—or for that matter in much of the rest of the Middle East, including some of Trump's other friends, in places such as Riyadh.

Speaking of which, here's another implication of Trump's, er, diplomacy in recent days: He has no respect for leaders of democracies, including American allies and key trade partners. He particularly enjoys the friendship of dictators.

Yes, Israel's occupation of the West Bank and its control over Gaza undercut its status as the “only democracy in the Middle East.” More damage to that claim is done by Netanyahu's alleged attempts—now under police investigation—to use his office to procure favorable media coverage. Yet as the very fact of a police investigation shows, Netanyahu still comes out at the bottom of local autocrat league. 

Faced with conflicting requests from Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman or Egyptian President el-Sisi, Trump could easily decide that either of the latter men is much more manly, beloved of his people, and worth cultivating. 

What, you say, he'd be defying donors and the sentiment of GOP in Congress? That's exactly what he's done in attacking trade agreements. Donors may or may not rebel; the GOP in Congress won't. 

Speaking of trade, Israel and the United States have had a free trade agreement since 1985. America had a trade deficit of nearly $10 billion with Israel in 2016. Trump momentarily brought that up during his 2017 visit to Israel. If you think he couldn't bring it up again because of donors or Republicans in Congress, you're not paying attention.

Probably the most startling part of the summit was Trump's announcement that he would stop “provocative” and “expensive” joint military exercises with South Korea—a decision made without telling or consulting the latter country. The dictator asked; Trump responded.

The greatest threat today to Israel's security is in Syria, where Russia and Iran have joined to bring victory to the barbarous Assad regime. Let's say Vladimir Putin calls Trump and complains about the “provocative” and costly U.S. funding of Israel's anti-missile defense. I suppose it's possible that Trump would firmly tell Vladimir no. I wouldn't count on it.

One more aspect of the summit is what got left out: human rights. Trump first said he discussed the subject “relatively briefly” with Kim, then realized it would sound better to claim that they talked about the subject “at length.” His real feelings were shown when he said Kim “loves his people.” 

This won't concern Netanyahu, but it should be one more warning light for the remaining believers that the Trump team will come up with a real Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. The human-rights impact of the occupation isn't on Trump's agenda. 

If the Trump team does present a plan soon, as it reportedly plans to do, the goal will be to prove what a dealmaker he is, and perhaps also to satisfy Arab autocrats such as the Saudi Crown Prince. It is unlikely to address underlying causes of the conflict. 

For the Israeli right, the Singapore summit should be a warning of the dangers of depending on Trump. For all who want Israeli-Palestinian peace, the summit is one more reminder of how Trump does diplomacy: As a media event, designed for ratings, not for results. 

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