Trump wants more U.S.-Israeli trade with narrower U.S. deficit

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump, at the start of a two-day visit to Israel, said on Monday in Jerusalem that he seeks a higher level of bilateral commerce but a lower U.S. trade deficit with Israel.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) gestures next to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in Jerusalem May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The United States is Israel’s single-largest trading partner by country, but third-largest regional market behind Europe and Asia. Israel was the first country to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., in 1985.

In 2016, the U.S. exported $8.1 billion of goods and services to Israel while importing $17.6 billion from Israel for a trade deficit of nearly $10 billion.

Overall, the United States has a global foreign trade deficit of about $44 billion. Only 11 percent of total imports into Israel come from the U.S.

“Already our two countries do a great deal of business together. We have a strong foundation on which to build an even closer trading relationship that benefits both of our countries,” Trump said in a speech after meeting Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

He then turned away from his script to Rivlin and added half-jokingly: “I’m going to try and narrow that trade deficit just a little bit, is that okay?”

Trump’s administration has ordered a study into the causes of U.S. trade deficits and a clamp-down on import duty evasion. He believes that large deficits are slowing American growth and employment.

Over the first four months of 2017, the U.S. trade deficit with Israel has narrowed, to $2.8 billion from $3.3 billion in the same period last year, mainly due to higher U.S. exports to Israel.

While Israel maintains a trade surplus with the United States, it has deficits with Europe and Asia.

Hoping to re-start frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Trump earlier landed in Israel on the second leg of a trip that began with a weekend visit to Saudi Arabia.

He will hold talks separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a stopover lasting 28 hours.

Reporting by Steven Scheer; Editing by Tom Heneghan