Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States on January 20, 2017.
Supporters of Israel uncomfortable with Trump’s lack of political and, especially, foreign policy experience, looked to his son-in-law Jared Kushner for reassurance. Trump’s daughter Ivanka had converted to Orthodox Judaism to marry Kushner and he was viewed as one of the new president’s closest advisers. Kushner has a personal relationship with Netanyahu going back many years. He reportedly wrote the very pro-Israel speech Trump delivered at the AIPAC Policy Conference in 2016 and was expected to be a positive influence on the president’s policy toward Israel.
Trump also chose two close friends, neither of whom had any foreign policy experience, to work directly with Israel. The first, David Friedman, a 57-year-old bankruptcy attorney was appointed ambassador to Israel. Friedman aroused controversy because of his role as the president of the Friends of Bet El, a settlement in the West Bank. Friedman also was an outspoken critic of the two-state solution and had angered some Jewish leaders when he referred to J Street as being worse than kapos and made derogatory remarks about the ADL. Friedman was confirmed after testifying before Congress that he would support the pursuit of a two-state solution and apologizing for the comments he had made about J Street.
Trump’s other surprising appointment was Jason Greenblatt, the executive vice president and chief legal officer to The Trump Organization, as Special Representative for International Negotiations. Greenblatt traveled to Israel and the West Bank in March 2017 and impressed many of his interlocutors with his open-mindedness. He spoke to Jews and Arabs with a variety of opinions, including Israeli settlers and Palestinian refugees, and presented the image of someone who would be a skilled negotiator. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said after meeting the envoy he believed Trump was serious about reaching an agreement. Arab leaders who met with him on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Jordan a few weeks later came away with the same opinion.
While the president repeatedly expressed his commitment to Israel and his intention to take a friendlier approach toward Israel and its prime minister – statements that alarmed the Palestinians -- some of Israel’s supporters were concerned when Trump chose Exxon executive Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Yet another appointee with no foreign policy experience, Tillerson had extensive ties in the Middle East due to his position in the oil industry, but, given that industry’s traditional closeness to the anti-Israel oil-producers of the region, his views on Israel were uncertain. Early on, however, he sought to reassure Israel and its friends, stating during his confirmation hearings, for example, “Israel is, has always been and remains our most important ally in the region.” He criticized Security Council Resolution 2334 and his predecessor’s “troubling” speech condemning Israeli policy. “The president-elect has already made it clear that we're going to meet our obligations to Israel as the most important ally in the region.” He also expressed skepticism about negotiations with the Palestinians so long as they refuse to recognize Israel as Jewish state and cease terrorism. Tillerson also vowed support for congressional action to combat the BDS movement and a full review of the Iran nuclear deal, which he opposed. Tillerson was replaced as Secretary of State by Mike Pompeo on March 13, 2018.
In mid-June 2018, key Trump staff members Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner travelled to the Middle East to test the waters for a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and explore options for rehabilitating Gaza. Greenblatt and Kushner met with officials in Jordan and Israel to discuss these topics, but Palestinian leaders refused to meet with the U.S. delegation.
Trump held his first meeting with a leader of the Arab world, King Abdullah of Jordan, on February 2, 2016. After the meeting, the White House issued a statement clarifying that while they “don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
Two days after his inauguaration Trump had called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the Iran nuclear issue as well as the regional threat of ISIS. Trump invited the Prime Minister to visit the White House, which he did on February 15, 2017. During a joint press conference with the Prime Minister, the President dropped the historic U.S. commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, stating
I'm looking at two states and one state, and... I can live with either one. Appearing to startle the Israeli leader, Trump later suggested that he would
like to see [the Israelis] hold back on settlements for a little bit.
Trump also surprised Netanyahu by publicly urging the prime minister to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” Prior to their meeting, the White House had told Israel to stop announcing new settlements. Press secretary Scott Spicer said, “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.” To read a full transcript of the joint press conference, please click here.
The Washington Post reported on May 15, 2017, that five days earlier Trump had revealed highly classified information in a White House meeting to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. This information, pertaining to ISIS plans to use laptop batteries as bombs, was classified to the highest degree; what is known in the intelligence community as
code-word information. It was revealed in the days following the Washington Post's bombshell that the information divulged to the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador had been obtained by an Israeli source embedded within ISIS in Syria. Israeli officials feared that the leak could compromise intelligence lines, and put current Israeli intelligence officers in danger.
The administration also declared National Jewish American Heritage Month in May 2017. To read the proclamation, please click here.
President Donald Trump embarked on his first foreign trip as President on May 19, 2017, with plans to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, and then various European nations on a 9-day trip. On May 21, 2017, Trump arrived in Israel on the first ever direct flight from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv, and was greeted by a red-carpet ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport. After issuing joint statements with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Trump met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and then toured Jerusalem's Old City with his entourage. President Trump wore a Yamurkle and prayed at the Western Wall during the afternoon of May 21, 2017, becoming the first sitting President to ever visit the holy site.
Trump visits the Western Wall
During Trump's visit to Israel he also took time to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. While initial reports surfaced of a cordial meeting, this was soon disproven by officials with knowledge of the exchange. Trump allegedly laid into Abbas, screaming at him that he had
deceived me [Trump] in Washington, after being shown by the Israelis that Abbas
personally ha[s] a hand in incitement. Trump was also furious about the PA’s “pay-for-slay” policy of providing salaries to convicted Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons and reiterated the demand he had made at the White House for Abbas to end the practice. Abbas told Trump he would not “stop the allowances of the families of the prisoners and Martyrs (Shahids), and emphasized his absolute support for them (i.e., for the payments).”
In a meeting with Palestinian officials on June 20, 2017, Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt reiterated the demand that the Palestinians cease payments to the so-called
Martyr’s Fund. A Palestinian official said the meeting did not go well and the request was rejected. Reportedly, the PA increased payments to terrorists and their families in 2018 by nearly $56 million after distributing $347 million in 2017.
The Trump administration wasted no time sending a message to the UN that it would no longer tolerate its ally being singled out for condemnation. One of the president’s first appointments, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, blasted the UN’s bias and declared that there “is a new sheriff in town.”
A particular target of Israel and the administration’s wrath is the Human Rights Council, where some of the world’s worst human rights violators pillory Israel and ignore the horrors taking place elsewhere in the world. The Obama administration often protested the absurdity of the council’s positions; nevertheless, it remained a member and opposed efforts to cut funding to the UN. Haley called the Council “corrupt,” and Tillerson warned the U.S. would withdraw from the Council if it does not undertake “considerable reform.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the first person President Trump met one-on-one with during the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017. Later that month, Trump's Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, sparked angry reactions from around the globe when he broke with formal U.S. policy and stated that the settlements are a part of Israel. The U.S. State Department clarified that Friedman's statements did not indicate a shift in policy and should not be used to prejudge negotiations to come.
After weeks of internal debate as to whether to eliminate all UNRWA funding as punishment for opposition to President Trump's policies, the Trump Administration decided on January 16, 2018, that the U.S. would pledge $60 million to Palestinian refugee programs. This is slightly less than half of what was expected, and according to administration officials the remaining $65 million would be held for future consideration. The following week the U.S. State Department announced that they would be withholding an additional $45 million in food aid pledged the previous month in a separate agreement.
On December 6, 2017, President Trump announced the official U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and the begnning of the process of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decision was widely criticized by leaders from around the globe as ignorant of international security issues and detrimental to the peace process. Every other member of the United Nations Security Council voted in favor of a draft resolution reversing Trump's decision two weeks later on December 18, but the resolution was vetoed by the United States. The General Assembly subsequently voted overwhelmingly on December 19, 2017, for a resolution implicitly calling on the U.S. to withdraw it's recognition of Jerusalem.
Vice President Mike Pence made at two-day visit to Israel in January 2018. Palestinian officials refused to meet with him in protest of the decision on Jerusalem, but he was warmly greeted by Israelis. During the trip, Pence announced the U.S. embassy would be moved to Jerusalem before the end of the year, contradicting earlier State Department statements suggesting the move would be delayed for years until a new building could be constructed. Soon after, the adminstration announced that it would move the U.S. embassy to the grounds of the consulate in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, to coincide with the celebration of Israel's 70th birthday.
The new United States embassy in Jerusalem was opened on May 14, 2018, coinciding with Israel's independence day. Officials from the Trump Administration attended the ceremony, along with representatives from 33 other countries. Noticeably absent were representatives from Western European nations.
Despite officially opening the new embassy, Trump again signed a wavier suspending the official move of the embassy on June 5, due to the fact that the Ambassador's official residence had yet to be moved.
The election outcome signaled a change in American policy toward Iran after Trump had repeatedly called the nuclear deal a disaster. In early February 2017, the new administration sanctioned 13 individuals and 12 entities for their support of Iran’s detrimental activities. Trump also announced a review of the Iran deal, which he continued to describe as “one of the worst deals I’ve ever witnessed.”
Under the deal, the State Department must update Congress on Iran’s compliance every 90 days and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has continued to fulfill that obligation in a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan saying that Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement. Tillerson also says, however, that Iran “remains a leading state sponsor of terror, through many platforms and methods” and that Trump had ordered an interagency review to determine whether the deal is “vital to the national security interests of the United States.”
Trump also sent a message to Tehran when he ordered an air strike on an air base in Syria which President Bashar Assad had used to launch a chemical weapons attack. By demonstrating that he was willing to use military force when red lines were crossed, Trump put the Iranians on notice that they could not count on using the nuclear agreement as a shield against an American response to their provocations.
The Trump Administration released a National Security Strategy paper on December 18, 2017, featuring a section detailing the administration's regional Middle East Strategy. To read this Strategy Paper, please click here.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Trump on March 5, 2018. To read their remarks prior to this meeting click here. Netanyahu thanked the president for his support, and specifically the recognition of Jerusalem, but the main focus of their meeting was mutual concerns about Iran.
On March 13, 2018, the U.S. hosted a conference with the goal of addressing the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Enraged by President Trump's recent decision to unilaterally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinian Authority representatives rejected an invitation to this conference, which was attended by representatives from 19 nations including Israel and all of the Arab gulf states.
Trump visits with Jordan's King Abdullah in Washington, Reuters, (February 2, 2017);
Transcript And Analysis: Trump And Netanyahu Hold Joint Press Conference, NPR, (February 15, 2017);
Kavita Surana, Dan De Luce, Robbie Gramer.
Israeli Intelligence Furious Over Trump’s Loose Lips, Foreign Policy, (May 19, 2017);
Peter Baker, Michael Shear, Ian Fisher.
Trump Comes to Israel Citing a Palestinian Deal as Crucial, New York Times, (May 22, 2017);
Phillip Rucker, Karen DeYoung.
In Israel, Trump urges new Middle East ‘harmony’ but faces old suspicions, Washington Post, (May 22, 2017);
Official says Palestinian terror glorification going out of style under Trump, Jerusalem Post, (May 28, 2017);
U.S. ambassador breaks with policy: ‘I think the settlements are part of Israel,’ Washington Post, (September 29, 2017);
U.S. vetoes U.N. Jerusalem resolution, designed to reverse Trump recognition, CBS News, (December 18, 2017);
Ruth Eglash, Jenna Johnson. “Prospects of peace elusive as Pence wraps up visit to Middle East,” Washington Post, (January 23, 2018);
President Trump Gives a Statement on Jerusalem, The White House, (December 6, 2017);
“National Security Strategy of the United States,” The White House, (December 2017);
“PM Netanyahu's Remarks at the Start of his Meeting with US President Donald Trump,” Israeli Prime Minister's Office, (September 18, 2017);
Steve Holland. “Exclusive: Trump likes two-state solution, but says he will leave up to Israelis, Palestinians,” Reuters, (February 23, 2017);
Statement by the Press Secretary, (February 2, 2017);
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley address to AIPAC Policy Conference, (March 27, 2017);
Somini Sengupta. “Nikki Haley Calls United Nations Human Rights Council ‘So Corrupt,’” New York Times, (March 29, 2017);
John Hudson Lynch. “Tillerson To U.N. Rights Council: Reform or We’re Leaving,” Foreign Policy, (March 14, 2017);
Margaret Hartmann. “Trump Orders Review of Iran Nuclear Deal, Though Iran Has Been Complying,” New York, (April 19, 2017);
“US-Israel Relations and Obama’s Mixed Legacy Followed by the Uncertainty of Trump,” in Arnold Dashefsky and Ira Sheskin, Eds., American Jewish Yearbook 2017, (CT: Springer, 2018);
Nathan Guttman, “How Payments To Terrorists Became An Issue At The Trump-Abbas Meeting,” Forward, (May 4, 2017);
Jack Moore, “Trump Raged At Palestinian Leader Mahmoud Abbas In Bethlehem Meeting: ‘You Lied To Me,’” Newsweek, (May 29, 2017);
Itamar Marcus and Nan Jacques Zilberdik, “Did the PA lie to the US Secretary of State?” Palestinian Media Watch, (June 14, 2017);
Kushner kicks off Mideast peace push with first solo visit, Associated Press, June 21, 2017);
Lahav Harkov. “Palestinians Increase Payments To Terrorists To $403 Million,” Jerusalem Post, (March 6, 2018);
Most foreign envoys absent as Israel, U.S. launch embassy festivities, Reuters, (May 14, 2018);
Philip Gordon, Prem Kumar.
Jared Kushner’s Middle East Fantasy, The Atlantic, (June 25, 2018).