Trump may end up moving the embassy, but clearly he’s coming to realize the idea is more fraught than he first imagined, and he appears to have put it on hold. To the surprise of many, myself included, his administration has issued a statement on Israeli settlements that would have been recognizable and acceptable to its predecessors. It’s hardly a James Baker-like blast on the settlements enterprise, and I’d bet that it was cleared with the Israelis. But it did caution Israel not to build new settlements or expand existing ones beyond their current borders. It signaled, particularly in the run-up to the Netanyahu visit, that there are limits to the administration’s new love affair with Israel.
Other, more sober voices are also being heard— Jordan’s King Abdullah, who wasn’t scheduled to meet with the president but did before the settlements statement was issued, may have weighed in on the Jerusalem issue. Trump and his team have also held a series of calls with Gulf leaders who probably delivered the same message. We don’t know what role, if any, Secretaries of Defense and State James Mattis and Rex Tillerson have played. But in the case of Mattis, who has strongly opposed the settlements enterprise—even opining that it could lead to apartheid—we can expect red, not green lights on early moves that are gratuitously “pro-Israeli.” And as an oilman with long experience in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, Tillerson is also likely to urge restraint when it comes to adopting positions that might undermine U.S. equities with key Arab states.
So it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that the Trump administration is going to let Bibi do whatever he wants, particularly when it comes to settlements, or morph into the U.S. branch of the Likud Party. In fact, if reports that the Trump administration is considering an approach on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking that accords a central role to key Arab states are true, then the administration has no intention of alienating the Arabs by tilting all the way over to Israel’s side.