WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s first visit to Israel couldn’t have come at a worst time for his presidency.
With crises surrounding an escalating investigation into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia, and disclosures that bolster allegations he tried to shut down the probe by firing FBI head James Comey, the American president faces serious adversity as he takes on an ambitious Middle East agenda.
After his first stop in Riyadh, where he will deliver a major address on Islam on Sunday, Trump will head to Israel and the West Bank, where he is expected to step up his attempts to forge what he considers the “ultimate deal” — Israeli-Palestinian peace.
But not only will those efforts be shadowed by the Russia investigation, they will come following a hectic week that saw two controversies directly related to his administration’s handling of its relationship with the Jewish state.
The first was sparked by reports that Trump had divulged to Russian officials highly classified intelligence from an Israeli source; the second, by his administration’s refusal to say the Western Wall is part of Israel.
Those two episodes, at least, are unlikely to have much of an impact on Trump’s visit to Jerusalem, according to former US and Israeli officials.
They are also almost certainly not going to be emphasized in any public way, predicted David Makovsky, a Middle East peace negotiator during the Barack Obama administration, in an interview with The Times of Israel.
“I think they’re going to go out of their way to ensure that these snafus melt away as much as possible,” said Makovsky, now a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Anything that would be seen as trying to diminish the visit by [Benjamin] Netanyahu, I think would be a failure,” he added, suggesting that the prime minister’s own domestic political concerns would be another incentive for him to aim for a successful visit.
Netanyahu, Makovsky insisted, “would like to say that if US-Israel relations were in trouble in the past, it’s because of Obama. If he has trouble with both the Democrats and the Republicans, people there will say, ‘Well, maybe it’s more about you.’”
While Trump’s leaking of intelligence reportedly risked an Israeli source inside the Islamic State, Jerusalem officials likely won’t feel compelled to make an issue of it privately either, according to Gilead Sher, who served as chief of staff to prime minister Ehud Barak.
“That doesn’t seem to be a very important cause of concern for the Israelis right now,” Sher, who co-chairs the pro-two-state organization Blue White Future, told The Times of Israel. “It’s a singular case and it’s not that significant to the context of the relationship between the White House and the prime minister, so I don’t believe it will play a big role in the discussions.”
Perhaps more sensitive to Israelis is the Trump administration’s unwillingness, even rhetorically, to recognize the Western Wall — Judaism’s holiest active prayer site — as part of Israel.
Trump will visit the wall on his trip, but Netanyahu won’t be at his side, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster announced last week, although Trump told the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom it was possible the prime minister could tag along. He will be the first sitting president to visit the holy site.
Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the nature and symbolism of Trump’s visit at the wall will be significant enough for Israelis that Netanyahu’s absence won’t be much of an issue.
“I think that if Trump himself goes to the Western Wall and does it with Israeli officials, even Israeli security, there’s going to be very little argument over who controls the Western Wall — certainly [when] going there to acknowledge it as a Jewish holy site,” he said in a call with reporters last week organized by The Israel Project.
The bigger concern for Trump, and perhaps the Israelis, will be whether additional shoes drop in the Russia probe while the president is away trying to realize the Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough he’s promised.
“I think the trip’s in a lot of jeopardy being able to be productive because of all the chaos and controversy that’s going on in Washington,” Dan Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel under Obama, told AFP.
“It’s always the domestic politics that take the upper hand when the leader is abroad,” added Sher, who was Israel’s chief negotiator at the 2000 Camp David summit.
If more disclosures come out while Trump is in Israel, he continued, “they will demand the attention and the time of the president and his team. So a lot depends on the developments during those days.”