JERUSALEM—Despite postponing a visit to Israel in late December and a near-constant rumor mill on when it will be rescheduled, a visit to the Middle East by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump now seems to be a foregone conclusion.
Trump first scheduled a visit to Israel, what would arguably the most significant stop in a regional visit, in December 2015. Around the same time he made volatile comments about restricting the access of Muslims into the United States that backfired at home and reverberated overseas.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” read an official statement published by Trump’s campaign website on Dec. 7. The statement was justified by citing a “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.”
Though the fallout from the 217-word statement has eased in recent months, the initial response from Israel—often described as the United States’ greatest ally in the Middle East—was swift and stern.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has close personal ties to the United States, issued a statement immediately stating that he “rejects Donald Trump’s recent remarks about Muslims.” Netanyahu also said that as a policy, he will meet with any presidential candidate visiting Israel who asks for a meeting.
He made it clear that any such meeting did not constitute an endorsement. Netanyahu’s statement instead described the gesture as an “expression of the importance that Prime Minister Netanyahu attributes to the strong alliance between Israel and the United States.”
Far from being a major concern among the more than 10 million people in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, Trump has made overtures to the region and notably conservative Jews, through uncharacteristically carefully-worded speeches. One, which was co-written by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, was given before AIPAC on March 21, 2016.
The speech focused on the potential dangers of the Iran agreement.
“The deal doesn’t even require Iran to dismantle its military nuclear capability,” said Trump in the speech. “Terrible, terrible situation that we are all placed in and especially Israel.”
In other settings, Trump has been much more casual about his comments. In a FOX News interview with Sean Hannity earlier this year before a live audience, Trump used the word “deal” repeatedly when referring to the Middle East. It’s common form for him.
“Our president has been, I think, the worst thing that has ever happened to Israel,” he said, referring to “that Iran deal…one of the dumbest deals.” He described it as a “dangerous deal” for Israel.
The local reaction from residents of Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, and nearby cities, varies from disbelief to amusement. In fact, residents are more likely to ask Americans what they think of Trump than vice versa.
In Bethlehem, where the Arab population is about 20 percent Christian, people are also adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
“Nobody knows what will happen after the election,” said Fidaa Mousa, a 25-year-old resident in the Bethlehem area. “Trump says one thing one day and another thing the next day.”
Mousa said that although she and others are watching the U.S. presidential elections with great interest, it is nearly impossible to predict what will happen next. Trump’s ability to win the Republican nomination came as surprise.
“Nobody can take him seriously,” she said. “It’s like a joke.”
Charly Juha, 56, is an Arab Christian businessman in Bethlehem. He owns and runs the prestigious St. George Restaurant with his cousins, which once hosted visiting members of the U.S. Congress during the Clinton administration.
Juha, like many in the Middle East, remember the Clinton years fondly. It’s common in both Israel and the West Bank to hear residents wax nostalgic about Bill Clinton. Under his administration, significant progress in the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians was made. That progress was shattered when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
On the eve of yet another U.S. presidential election, Juha and others are reticent about the possibility of Trump emerging triumphant.
“No matter what he says now during the campaign, nobody knows what will happen after,” said Juha. “Maybe he says one thing now and then he does another.”
In the U.S., Trump has enjoyed the support of some heavy hitters in the world of pro-Israel relations. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who late last month officially endorsed Trump, has promised to give $100 million to the campaign. Adelson, a staunch right-wing supporter of Israel, has offered little in connecting his support to Trump’s stance on the Middle East.
If Trump does visit Israel, it could be anytime between now and the general election on Nov. 7. He will likely meet with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Other meetings would probably include regional stops in Saudi Arabia, where Trump has significant business interests, as well as Egypt and Jordan.
Politicians paying homage to Middle East heavyweights is typical of both political candidates and those who hold office. Even mayors and city council officials from large U.S. metropolitan locales often visit Israel under the cover of “strengthening ties” and building business relationships.
The general consensus is that Trump wants to use a pro-Israel stance, whether genuine or not, to leverage the Jewish vote and the powerful Jewish lobby. In a Dec. 28, 2015 op-ed, the Jerusalem Post described him as skilled at “pro-Israel rhetoric.” But he’s had some ups and downs in that area.
Before his now-infamous statement on banning Muslim immigration to the U.S., Trump told a gathering of members of the Jewish Republican Coalition that they probably won’t back him because he is rich and doesn’t want their contributions. The statement was seen as reinforcing anti-semitic rhetoric.
“Trump had hoped his visit to Israel on the eve of the Republican primaries would bolster his lead in the race,” wrote Eytan Gilboa in the Post op-ed, who added that he wanted to “project interest and knowledge in national security and foreign affairs.”
Gilboa added that Trump is attempting to “garner legitimacy for his controversial positions on the region, and to contrast his support for Israel with what he called the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Jewish state.”