Surveying the Past and the Present

Understanding Rhetoric on Israel from Obama to Trump

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel hold a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, Sept. 30, 2013 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By Isaac Simon

Donald Trump’s first visit to the middle east was as anticlimactic as it was historic. His speech in Riyadh can only be understood in the context with which he was received. King Salman, along with the other Saudi heads of state treated Trump in a way that might rival the way he treats himself. He received a warm royal welcome, and was bestowed with the nation’s highest honor. But, what is far more important than how he was received, is what he said. For the most part, Trump stayed on message, calling for a global unity by painting international terror as a battle between good and evil, not a fight over religious theocracy. He announced the upcoming 110 billion-dollar defense deal between the two respective countries and signed an agreement known as the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center, which was “joined by every member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”

In order to better understand Trump’s speech, his first in the Muslim world, one must understand presidential precedent. Although polarizing in their differences, such a speech is reminiscent of the one President Obama gave at Cairo University in 2009. Obama’s speech was more problematic than historical. While his command of speech provided the world with a connection to his personal story, his words ultimately fell short. President Obama called for unity to transcend global differences. He discussed the values of Islam, whether it be its vibrant culture or rich religion. But, he never stopped preaching to the choir. “So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t.” Of course, discussing the difference between radical Islam and Islamophobia does nothing to help sift out radical extremism, in part because religious zealots do not concern themselves with respecting those they wish to kill.

The speech came roughly six months after Obama took office, a year and six months before the Arab Spring. It came off as more of a lecture than a call to action – more professorial than presidential. Sharing the similarities between Islam and the rest of the world along with the history of Muslims as people is fine when understanding the bedrock of a faith. However, while history lessons answer questions about the past, they are limiting when facing the problems of the present. Speaking in Cairo was a great opportunity for Obama to profess the evils of extremism, not to educate the world on the virtues of Islam.

President Obama never used the words ‘islamist extremism’ during his speech in Cairo. In this respect, he remained consistent until the end of his presidency. President Trump used words that differ from Obama but also from himself as a candidate. He once said, “That means honestly confronting the crisis of Islamist extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires.” President Trump’s decision to pander to Muslim countries by modifying rhetoric that he employed on the campaign trail is understandable. But even if it was more symbolic than pragmatic, it was important nonetheless. Words matter, along with the time, place, and manner in which they are used. Uttering such a sentence in Saudi Arabia before taking a direct flight to Israel sends a significant message to the rest of the Middle East.

I spent the last two weeks of May 2017 traveling throughout Israel, attaining a greater sense of the conflict, both past and present. Being that my visit overlapped with Trump’s, I took the opportunity to ask Israelis about their opinion of the new President. One Israeli that I spoke to, an Orthodox Jew, spoke with great enthusiasm about Trump, viewing his Presidency as a pleasant departure from eight years of a less-than-ideal Obama Administration. He argued that because Trump is like no other President, there exists a silver lining that did not in previous administrations. Others felt differently. They viewed Trump as more of a demagogue than any kind of serious decision maker.

Trump’s time in Israel included an historic visit to the Western Wall, as the first sitting U.S. President to do so, along with visits to religious holy sites, and private meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. At both his speech at Yad Vashem as well as the Israel Museum, he avoided talk of moving the Israeli Embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem along with the status of “settlements,” which Trump had told Netanyahu to halt when the Prime Minister visited the White House earlier this year.

When President Obama gave his speech in Cairo, he framed the Arab-Israeli conflict by employing remarkably bizarre rhetoric. “They [the Palestinians] endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation.” Occupation is, of course, a political term, and one which Trump correctly avoided during his visit to the Middle East. What Obama failed to note was the lack of sovereignty within the Palestinian Authority. Occupation implies that one sovereign nation is illegally occupying another nation’s sovereignty. He went on to say, “but if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth.” When Netanyahu visited Trump earlier this year, Trump declared that he supported whatever deal was best for both parties. Unlike Obama, perhaps Trump’s vision incorporates the needs of both Israelis and the Palestinians.

During his speech at the Israel Museum, Trump said, “I stand in awe of the accomplishments of the Jewish People, and I make this promise to you: my administration will always stand with Israel.” Such rhetoric is a swift departure from the Obama years in which Israel’s ‘right to exist’ was often discussed. Such a question was never asked of other sovereign nations. Moreover, in a similar speech, Obama talked about the responsibility Hamas has when it comes to providing reasonable governance to the Palestinian people without acknowledging that they are, in fact, a terrorist organization.

Peace talks under Obama began just six months before he was set to leave office. These came in the form of then Secretary of State John Kerry traveling to Israel with certain preconditions, an example of an inherently destructive mindset when negotiating geopolitics.

Trump will not move the embassy to Jerusalem, despite his promise to do so as a candidate in 2016. Israelis understood this from the beginning, and most seem to be indifferent to the matter. He has also deflected with regard to changing the course of the Iran Deal. None of that has prevented his forceful public disapproval of the agreement, calling it, “one of the worst deals I have ever seen.” Trump comes from a background of real estate and private equity. His role in brokering a future peace deal will be delivered in terms that reflect his experience in private business. Given the history, along with the region’s current complications, this is one deal he wants to stay far away from.