The Boundary-Breaking Meeting Between Trump and Netanyahu
The scenes in Washington, DC last Wednesday were nothing short of astounding. Whatever your political leanings, and however you feel about President Donald Trump or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, you surely were struck by the remarkable change in how the White House greeted Israel’s leader. It was breathtaking to witness the very same Israeli premiere who was subjected to frosty and awkward receptions by President Obama being warmly welcomed by the new president.
This is the same prime minister who was cold-shouldered by the Obama Administration for the past eight years; whose speech to Congress two years ago was seen as a direct insult to the incumbent president; whose Israel-first ideology has been vilified for years as destructive and retrograde by diplomats and the media. Just under three years ago, in March 2014, the New York Times noted wryly that the unexpected snowstorm that hit DC as Netanyahu arrived for the AIPAC Policy Conference was mild compared to the wintry welcome he got from the White House.
Well, that all changed last Wednesday in Washington.
And it wasn’t just Trump’s friendliness that was different. The warm welcome only amplified the total change in the executive branch’s attitude towards Israel. In a line that has reverberated around the world, President Trump said in response to a question about US support for a Palestinian state, “I’m looking at two-state and at one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.” The jury is still out as to exactly what he meant: whether this was an off-the-cuff line by a man notorious for his improvisations, or whether it reflected a tectonic policy shift actively being considered by Trump and his advisers.
Either way, it represented a boundary-breaking moment in historical terms. Senior politicians, and especially leaders of nations, rarely drift off-script when discussing any issue, particularly when addressing sensitive Middle East affairs. Whatever their personal opinion, politicians soon learn to follow the official line, with the realization that hundreds of minds have devoted thousands of hours of research and discussion into coming up with those positions, and that their own gut feelings cannot match this kind of input.
In the days of the Soviet Union, Western intelligence agencies employed an analysis method known as “Kremlinology” to determine any policy change in Moscow, which was notoriously tightlipped and impenetrable in its public pronouncements. The removal of portraits from official offices, the moving of chairs, any changes in people’s titles, even slight deviances from established protocol, were pored over and scrutinized to see if they indicated some major shift. But there is no need for Kremlinology when listening to President Trump; the dismantling of past US positions is in plain view for all to see.
According to most of the classic Torah commentaries, the episode that recalls Jethro joining his son-in-law Moses and the newly freed Jewish nation in the Sinai desert is out of place. Chronologically, his arrival took place after the Torah had already been received, yet it appears in the Biblical narrative before the Mount Sinai revelation. Although the Talmud and Midrash make clear in numerous places that the Torah is not a chronological record of events, sequential aberrations still require explanation.
Unusually, Rashi records both of the Talmudic views for what induced Jethro to leave his home in Midian and join the Jewish people. According to one, it was the news of the splitting of the Red Sea; according to another, it was the Jewish victory against Amalek, after what was the first attempt at Jewish genocide.
I believe that Rashi saw a common denominator in these perspectives, which caused him to quote both. The splitting of the Red Sea is significant because it showed that the God-created boundaries of the world could be broken. When the Red Sea split, it was revealed that God’s boundaries of land and sea were not absolute; what was once sea could become dry land. Similarly, in the battle against Amalek, the Jews — an untrained group of recently freed slaves — were up against a trained army of bloodthirsty warriors, a game of odds entirely not in the Jews’ favor. They were bound to lose. But, in a world where the limitations of natural boundaries could be superseded, Moses lifted his arms and the Jewish fighters would pray with greater fervor, and the battle turned in their favor.
So, too, Jethro realized that his long life of devoted paganism could be discarded, and it time and possible for him to embrace a new paradigm. He left Midian and went to Sinai.
This theme of shattering boundaries needed to be stressed before the Torah was given, not afterwards.
Modern Israel is a country that has broken boundaries from the moment it was conceived in Basel 120 years ago. This week we saw the phenomenon right before our very eyes. What it all means in diplomatic terms is as yet unclear, but those people who continue to gnaw at the same old Oslo two-state bone are evidently missing the point completely.