By the Jewish Ledger Editorial Board
Intriguing remote locations. Opulent production values. A story arc scripted to elevate the difficult host. Mishpoche. Gaffes and unanticipated drama. Tension among the contestants, and the judges. Dominance of social and mainstream media.
So went the Middle Eastern segment of The Amazing Race: Apprentice Edition – hatched by the White House as a prequel to a regular NATO meeting in Brussels and a G7 summit in Sicily. For four days Trump would show himself fulfilling his campaign promises to defeat ISIS, isolate Iran, and make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The White House was intent on dealing with the Middle East. Thus arose the symbolic appeal for Abrahamic unity, and the monotheistic pilgrimage to the birthplaces of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. As Executive Producer Jared Kushner put it, “The president asked us to plan a trip that would help unite the world against intolerance and terrorism.”
But besides the videos and photos we can expect to see in 2020 re-election ads, there were – at the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and later with Pope Francis in Rome – less reassuring images, words, and deeds.
The staged photograph of President Trump, Saudi King Salman, and Egyptian President al-Sisi clasping an eerily lit orb was strange, to say the least. But hardly less strange was the address Trump gave before a gathering of 50 Muslim leaders from around the world. In it he did not so much as allude to his thus far judicially thwarted ban on travel from a group of majority-Muslim countries, nor signal any criticism of Wahhabism, the fanatical version of Sunni Islam exported worldwide by the Saudis.
Even as the President’s Jewish supporters applauded his call for a united Sunni coalition against Iran, they were disquieted by the main business of the trip to Riyadh – the signing of a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis. Nor was it made clear how ISIS would be defeated by forming a united front against Iran, ISIS’ implacable foe.
Then it was on to Israel, where the open media environment of a healthy democracy was less forgiving for President Trump, and full of moments made for great reality TV.
First, former casino operator Likud MK Oren Hazan insisted on taking a selfie with the President on the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport. Next came a classic Trump own-goal at a reception hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As it was ending, Trump called out to the exiting journalists, “I never said the name or the word Israel,” thereby putting his Oval Office soiree with the Russians back into the news. The next day, he marred his quick photo-op at Yad Vashem with a tastelessly inappropriate note scribbled into the visitor’s book.
But from the Israeli standpoint, the whirlwind visit went well. First Lady Melania Trump became a surprise hit in Israeli social media during her visit to Hadassah Hospital. After dining with the Netanyahus in Jerusalem the President had a less than congenial meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
At the White House in February, President Trump turned directly to Netanyahu and said before cameras, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.” But in the one presidential speech of the Israel visit – the last event on the schedule – there was not a word said of settlements. Neither was a word uttered about moving – or not moving – the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
Trump’s main rhetorical business was to take another opportunity to excoriate Tehran, and to reassure the Israelis that, notwithstanding the big Saudi arms deal, the U.S. would maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge over its Middle Eastern neighbors.
Public pronouncements aside, most sober Israel-Palestine watchers believe that neither Abbas nor Netanyahu are ready to negotiate. Netanyahu will demand Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish State; Abbas will demand a settlement freeze. And if they conclude that Trump’s days as president are numbered, they will engage in stalling maneuvers to await the outcome of America’s constitutional crisis.
All in all, Trump had a much better run in the Middle East than in Europe, where he met with a dour Pope, scolded and physically scuffled with NATO and G7 allies, and held himself aloof from mutual defense obligations and consensus on climate change. In the process, he trampled upon seven decades of American bipartisan foreign policy, and endangered the Atlantic alliance.
And so Trump returned to the White House, and to a different reality show. With a summer’s worth of congressional hearings on tap, and a special counsel’s investigation in the offing, there was every sign that the slim and fleeting success of The Amazing Race: Apprentice Edition would quickly be overwhelmed in drama and ratings by House of Cards: Apprentice Edition.