The D.J. Trump Medicine Show Comes to Israel

Debbie Hill, Pool via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. 

In the American legend of the confidence man, he arrives in a small town by train or riverboat. He claims to be a professor who can teach children to play expensive musical instruments without effort, or a minister and the heir of the richest man in town.

He talks quickly, thinks of lies even faster. He is everything to all people. The legend dates from an era before radio or television. So the confidence man succeeds in fooling the yokels just as long as no one shows up from the last town he took in. When word does catch up with him, as in Mark Twain's version, he's likely to be tarred and feathered, and run out of town on a rail.

In the 2017 remake, the American confidence artist arrives in a small country in the Middle East aboard Air Force One. In a plot twist that defies credibility, he actually is the president of the United States. In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, he aims at convincing Palestinian and the left-leaning half of the Israeli public that he will lead them to the peace agreement that has eluded everyone before him—and at convincing the Israeli prime minister and the right-leaning half of the Israeli public that he is the Republican president they've dreamt of, the one who will stop talking about Palestinian rights, recognize that “united Jerusalem” belongs to Israel, and even blow up the perfidious accord with Iran.

And strangely enough, even with minute-by-minute Twitter updates of the scandals consuming him in Washington, even with most of the shocked and awed Israeli media headlining those scandals daily, he flimflams nearly everyone in the country for 28 hours before flying away again.

A sculptor works with stone. A confidence artist works with people's desire to believe. It would be wonderful to learn how to play a cornet or trombone just by thinking about it, without practicing or learning notes. The swindler in The Music Man tells them they can.

As prime minister in the late 1990s, Benjamin Netanyahu had a testy relationship with President Bill Clinton. After he regained power in 2009, his relationship with President Barack Obama could have been written by Edward Albee. He and his loyalists needed to believe that the problem was with Democrats, not with basic U.S. positions and interests. They wanted to believe that a Republican president would smile and give Israel everything it wanted.

For a few weeks last summer, Netanyahu had an episode of clear vision and saw that Trump wasn't the Republican he was waiting for. Instead of waiting for the next administration to negotiate a new 10-year American aid package, he quickly accepted the (actually quite generous) offer Obama was making.

The episode passed. Netanyahu followed many of his GOP friends and attached his fantasy of Republican rule to Trump. After the election, Trump's promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and his choice of a far-right settlement advocate as ambassador to Israel seemed to show that he was just what the Israeli right wanted. Netanyahu's government celebrated Trump's inauguration by approving lots of new homes in West Bank settlements.

Then came hints of trouble. When Netanyahu visited Washington, Trump asked him—as if it occurred to him on the spot—to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” Trump regularly repeated that he was the dealmaker who'd make Israeli-Palestinian peace. He hasn't (yet) moved the embassy; he hasn't (yet) torn up the Iran deal. It doesn't much matter whether Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster have sweet-talked him back toward classic American positions, or he discovered that it's fun to be applauded by Arab leaders as well, or just wants to show that he can make the deal that eluded Obama.

Some Israeli commentators, ones who wouldn't be expected to, started taking Trump's peace talk seriously. Look, they too have reasons to want to believe. Israel has a hope deficit. And if Trump really drags Netanyahu to the table, it will show that the prime minister made a colossal error. That thought is so delicious that it has outweighed the evidence of Trump's inability to negotiate with a Republican Congress.

So by the time Air Force One touched down, all too many people in this small town of a country were ready to give him his heart's desire: applause, respect, honor. He managed, almost entirely, to speak from a script of platitudes. Trump visited the Western Wall, a first for a serving U.S. president. Beforehand, this caused a kerfuffle. The American advance crew told Israeli officials not to come with them to the site, saying it was part of the West Bank. Netanyahu let it drop, because he could tell himself that the visit itself was closer to recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the holy site than anything a president has done before. Trump met Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Bethlehem, to show that he really does care about peace, or at least being the dealmaker. 

He closed the visit with a speech to an audience of VIPs that was carried live by national television channels and news sites. The text was an entire rack of Hallmark cards to Israel. “The ties of the Jewish people to this Holy Land are ancient and eternal,” Trump said, and, “I make this promise to you: My administration will always stand with Israel.”

He talked about Jews, Christians, and Muslims praying in Jerusalem in phrases that could have been taken from Netanyahu PR releases. He met the very lowest bar of maintaining U.S. policy by not referring to the city as “united” or by announcing he was about to move the embassy.

He said that he is “committed” to making peace and that Abbas is “ready to reach a peace deal,” and if you really want to believe this, you can. Just note that he did not say “two states,” or mention occupation, Palestinian independence, settlements, refugees, claims to holy places, or any other issue that Israelis need to confront in order to make peace.

The most revealing moments were the ones where he slipped off script. “Iran's leaders routinely call for Israel's destruction,” he read, and then ad-libbed, “Not. With. Donald. J. Trump.”

A standing ovation followed.

Trump responded, “Thank you. I like you, too.” In other words, this was all about the crowd liking him.

“America's strategic partnership with Israel is stronger than ever—under my administration, you see the difference, big big beautiful difference—including the Iron Dome missile defense system,” Trump said. The part about his administration was impromptu. He may not precisely have intended to steal credit from Obama for funding the anti-missile program. He definitely did want to claim, with no relation to reality, that some grand upgrade in the strategic relation has taken place since January 20. It's all about him.

He left for the airport. Netanyahu and partners remained happy they'd found their savior. Peace advocates looked for the subtle clues that he was serious about diplomacy. He put peace back on the Israeli political agenda, one commentator wrote, simply because the right can't dismiss him the way that it dismissed Obama and John Kerry.

Perhaps. I, too, would like to be optimistic. Maybe the one impossibly unlikely accomplishment of Donald Trump will be an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. At the end of The Music Man, the kids do manage to get blats out of their horns.

Maybe, but I don't see the evidence. And word of Trump's swindles is catching up with him. The likely ending is the way Mark Twain told it: With some equivalent of tars, feathers, and a rail. 

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