Making sense of the strange Trump-Netanyahu meeting

What's the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution?
What's the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution?

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Story highlights

  • Shapiro: Netanyahu might be wondering if Trump's victory was really such a great prize for him personally
  • Netanyahu experienced a bewildering morass of traditional US policy, ideological revamp and seat-of-the-pants improvisation

Daniel Shapiro served as US Ambassador to Israel from 2011 until the end of the Obama administration. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met 17 times during the course of their eight years in office together. I was the only person on the US side to attend each meeting.

These encounters were generally cordial and often productive, befitting the close alliance between our countries. They were also occasionally -- and famously -- frustrating and contentious. But I can never recall even one that looked as downright weird as the meeting Wednesday between President Donald Trump and Netanyahu at the White House.
It was not for lack of friendship and conviviality. Netanyahu and Trump seem to share genuine warmth and mutual affection. Similar in age, outlook and personal style, they seem a more natural fit than Obama and Netanyahu ever did. Many in Israel cheered Trump's victory, believing he would be friendlier to Israel's interests.
But as he tallies up the points from this week's meeting, Netanyahu might be wondering if Trump's victory was really such a great prize for him personally.
Netanyahu will give credit where it's due. He and Trump are of like mind on Iran, believing that the nuclear agreement was a bad deal and that additional pressures should be brought to be bear in response to Iranian provocations, like its ballistic missile tests.
The two leaders also have a common desire to pursue a regional strategy that draws on Israel's warming ties with Arab states that share its fear of Iran and ISIS, before restarting talks with the Palestinians. And Trump spoke clearly and forcefully against the way Palestinian youth are educated to hate Israelis, making it harder to build toward an eventual end to the conflict.
But there were numerous displays of gaps between the leaders and other off-key notes, as well. While expressed in friendly tones, these moments suggested that some of the issues that divided Netanyahu and Obama will continue to mark differences between Israel and the US in the Trump era, while other unusual features of the new administration may make Netanyahu, to his own surprise, miss no-drama Obama.
Start with the traditional US-Israel divide on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In an echo of many moments shared with Obama, Netanyahu and Trump were anything but on the same page on this subject. Trump left no doubt that, while he will give Netanyahu space for now on defining the endgame with the Palestinians, he expects to see significant restrictions on expansion of settlements. Even in their tap dance around the two-state solution -- Trump said he has no preference between one state and two states, as long as both sides agree; we can expect that to last only until Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and presidential envoy and son-in-law Jared Kushner make their first visit to the region and meet with Arab and Palestinian leaders.
Trump: I can live with 2 or 1-state solution
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Then there was the surrounding context of the meeting. As Netanyahu arrived late Tuesday in Washington, a full-scale crisis was erupting in the White House. Less than a month into the administration, President Trump's national security adviser, retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, was forced to resign over his contact with the Russian ambassador during the transition and misrepresentations about those conversations to Vice President Mike Pence.
The crisis is not close to being contained, with new revelations about contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, bitter recriminations among White House staff and the prospect of Congressional investigations.
The chaos undoubtedly affected the quality and substance of the meeting as well. Flynn had been a key interlocutor with Netanyahu's top aides in several rounds of discussions to prepare for the visit, and his absence must have been felt.
And the allegations themselves underscore a potential area of friction. Trump's determination to develop a closer partnership between the US and Russia, which could help explain Flynn's apparent reassurance to the Russian ambassador in December when President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia over its interference in the US election, poses a significant challenge to Israeli interests.
Both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have expressed interest in linking US and Russian military operations against ISIS in Syria. But it is difficult to see Russia cooperating with the United States in Syria without seeking greater validation of its own long-term military presence and acceptance of the permanence of Bashar al-Assad's bloody regime.
Among the strategic beneficiaries would be Assad's allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Russia's friends in the Middle East are not Israel's friends, and Israel will have to navigate a treacherous path to ensure its core interest of preventing a strengthened Iranian/Hezbollah presence in Syria, without clashing with Trump over his Russia play.
Finally, Netanyahu was treated to the remarkable and disturbing spectacle of Trump, when asked a direct question by an Israeli journalist Moav Vardi about the rise in anti-Semitic incidents since his election, failing to even mention anti-Semitism, much less condemn it.
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It was left for the Prime Minister himself to vouch for Trump's friendship for the Jewish people after the president himself, in his rambling answer, preferred to focus on his Electoral College win and his Jewish family members.
In sum, Netanyahu experienced what many world leaders seeking to establish ties and advance their interests with the new administration may go through: wading through a bewildering morass of traditional US policy, ideological revamp and seat-of-the-pants improvisation, with accompanying measures of chaos, scandal and Trumpspeak.
One wishes these leaders luck making sense of it all.