In a week of political earthquakes, Donald Trump's riff at a rally of the faithful about the “higher price” that Israel will one day pay for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem didn't move the seismograph needle much in America.
For obvious reasons, in Israel it created more headlines and inspired more commentary. In part, that's because no one knows what Trump meant, or knows if he knew what he meant—as is so often the case.
Still, I think it's worth attention in Trump's home territory, if only because it adds to the sense that Trump is working from the script of The Tragical History of Richard Nixon—but performing it as farce. For practical purposes, Trump is now an unindicted co-conspirator. And he is playing with the delusion that he'll save himself with brilliant Middle East peacemaking.
The key bit in Trump's soliloquy comes after he tells how the world's leaders warned him not to move the embassy:
So I approved it. It should have done years ago, because if there's ever going to be peace—remember I said it—with the Palestinians, it was a good thing to have done ... because every time there were peace talks, they never got past Jerusalem being the capital. So I said, “Let's take it off the table.” And you know what, in the negotiation, Israel will have to pay a higher price, because they won a very big thing.
Before parsing this mess, let's talk about Nixon: It may be hard to put the memories together in our minds, but the final year of the Watergate saga was also the year in which Nixon belatedly got involved in Israeli-Arab diplomacy.
Nixon always sold himself as a master of foreign policy. His view of the world, though, was sharply black and white: He saw everyone on the global stage as either an American or a Soviet chess piece. Israel, the American piece, was in a stronger position than Syria and Egypt, Soviet pieces—or so he and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger thought. They ignored the Middle East till October 1973. Then the Yom Kippur War (a.k.a. the October War) focused their attention.
Or at least Kissinger's attention. Nixon was busy at the beginning of the war coping with Vice President Spiro Agnew's abdication and criminal conviction, and at the end of the war with getting rid of the Watergate special prosecutor in the Saturday Night Massacre. Kissinger handled negotiations with the Soviets and a nuclear near-showdown while Nixon complained on the phone to him about his domestic opponents, “They are doing this because of their desire to kill the president. ... I may physically die.”
Between then and May 1974, Kissinger—with Nixon's preoccupied backing—negotiated disengagement agreements between Israel and both Egypt and Syria. In June, Nixon visited all three countries, hoping that the trip would somehow restore his aura as the foreign policy president.
It didn't work. When Israel's foreign minister, Yigal Allon, met Kissinger at Camp David on August 1, the secretary of state said that Nixon was at the White House, “listening to tapes and climbing the walls.” A week later Nixon resigned.
Back to the current farce. Trump may actually be more skilled than Nixon at temporarily distracting the public from new evidence against him. Or maybe it's just that he has Twitter and Fox to help out.
Mueller is hiding his cards, and Stormy Daniels is hiding nothing? Hold a summit with Kim Jong Un and proclaim you've ended the North Korean nuclear threat! A former aide is releasing tapes that suggest your lackeys used threats, seasoned with hush money, to try to keep her quiet? Quick, grab the news cycle by cancelling the security clearance of a former CIA director!
As the first example shows, Trump uses foreign as well as domestic diversions. As his comments about Jerusalem at his West Virginia rally demonstrates yet again, he is quite certain that going broke in Atlantic City prepared him to be a better international negotiator than any president before him.
I'm doubtful that Trump actually has any Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in the works. If he does, I'm much more doubtful that it contains anything that give Palestinians—or for that matter Israelis—reason to take it seriously.
But if Trump does announce a peace plan, there's a good chance it will coincidentally happen two hours after Paul Manafort flips, or Donald Jr. is indicted, or Ivanka is revealed to actually be Vladimir Putin's daughter, or—God knows. The weirder, the more likely the scenario.
The threat to make Israel pay up seems even less credible. So far, the Trump regime has exacted no price for anything from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the warning itself is a reminder: Trump too has a black-and-white view of the world. In his case, the division is entirely personal. The good guys are those who compliment him, and the bad guys are against him.
To go with that, he sees foreign relations—like all relations—as entirely transactional and zero-sum: I did you a favor, now pay up.
If Trump's mood tells him that Netanyahu has in some way been disloyal, or failed to show sufficient gratitude, he could turn on the prime minister. What “higher price” would he demand? No one in Israel has any idea, which is reasonable—Trump had no idea when he made the comment.
As for Trump's hope that a foreign policy spectacle will save him, Nixon was a lot cleverer and it didn't work for him. Or to put it differently: We knew Richard Nixon, even if we were on his enemy's list. Mr. Trump, you're no Richard Nixon.