Shadows loom for Trump trip to Israel

Shadows loom for Trump trip to Israel
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JERUSALEM — Diplomatic slip-ups and an intelligence leak have cast a long shadow on President Trump’s visit to Israel next week.

The trip should be a celebration of sorts for Trump and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, who had a decidedly chilly relationship with former President Obama.

During his campaign, Trump criticized Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and promised unequivocal support for Israel. He talked about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and named an outspoken critic of Obama’s policies, David Friedman, as U.S. ambassador to Israel.

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Yet Trump has wavered on some promises since then.

He’s backed off the pledge to move the embassy to Jerusalem, and had criticized the building of new Israeli settlements.

In an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week, Trump allegedly revealed sensitive intelligence about an ISIS plot. The New York Times reported that Israel was the source of the information.

Headlines in Israel have also been dominated about a controversy over Jerusalem’s Western Wall, which Trump plans to visit.

A U.S. diplomat was quoted on Israeli television as stating that the Western Wall was in “occupied territory” and that it would not be appropriate, as a result, for Netanyahu to accompany Trump on the visit.

Israel reacted with outrage, arguing it could not be the president’s position that Netanyahu not visit a site considered one of Judaism’s most sacred places.

The White House said the comments by the diplomat did not reflect the U.S. position.

The Netanyahu government has largely shrugged off the controversies.

“The security relationship between Israel and our great ally the United States is deep, meaningful and unprecedented in its scope and contribution to our strength,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tweeted. “That is how it has been and that is how it will continue to be.”

Netanyahu had a poor relationship with Obama and has invested in better ties with the Trump administration, which perhaps gives him little choice but to play down any diplomatic hiccups.

Since Netanyahu's 2015 surprise reelection, his political opponents have been in disarray and his security-first approach has cemented his support among Israelis. Trump's victory last November gave Netanyahu another political victory, after both men supported each other's campaign efforts.

Still, that's given Trump leverage to demand Israeli concessions.

The Jerusalem Post reported Thursday that Trump plans to demand a slowdown in Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank, a request Trump made at a joint press conference at the White House, asking Netanyahu to "hold back a bit" on new constructions.

That pushback resonated with the Palestinian Authority, whose political star has faded amid internal squabbling and a politically emboldened Netanyahu.

Trump is scheduled to visit the West Bank town of Bethlehem for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday. Palestinians will use the meeting to bolster a weakened Abbas.

Elias Zananiri, a spokesman for Abbas, claimed hopefully that Trump's visit could re-ignite the peace process.

“There is a chance something happens — something good,” said Zananiri. “If it works, he will be crowned king of the world. If it doesn’t, he’ll say ‘I tried.'”

But few outside the Palestinian Authority expect the trip to change the dynamic between Netanyahu and Abbas.

“I don’t hold very high hopes on rekindling the fire between [Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] after Trump’s visit,” said Avital Leibovitch, the Jerusalem director for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) — the oldest Jewish civil rights advocacy organization — and a former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokeswoman under Netanyahu

Israeli Arabs — Christians and Muslims who live in Israel and hold full citizenship — aren’t holding their breath either.

“It’s good for Trump, not for the region,” Dr. Hanna Swaid, a Christian Israeli Arab and former member of the Knesset, said of the visit. 

Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a group that tracks Palestinian and Israeli public sentiment, said Palestinians at ground level have a similar attitude.

Shikaki said only 5 percent of Palestinians view Trump as a friend, and 85 percent said his election would not have a positive impact.

“Most Palestinians do not believe that any of this is serious,” said Shikaki.