Mideast peace an elixir for Trump’s domestic woes?

Trump’s lagging fortunes at home coincide with signs of stirring in the diplomatic process. Are the two connected?

By
March 31, 2017 23:48
Netanyahu, Greenblatt

Netanyahu, Greenblatt . (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

With US President Donald Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt in the region this week for the second time in less than a month, with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority due to meet with Trump next month in Washington, and with talk circulating of a possible Israel-PA-Saudi- Gulf states summit this summer, there is suddenly a sense that something is stirring on the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic front.

There are those on the Right saying that this movement is different from the past, and that a careful parsing of statements coming from the administration and Greenblatt show a different tone and a different emphasis.

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For instance, Greenblatt’s summary of three days of meetings he held this week in Jordan on the sidelines of the Arab League summit makes no mention at all of a two-state solution; nor does it condemn the settlements, as a statement from a similar type of meeting held by former secretary of state John Kerry or one of his underlings certainly would have done.

On the other hand, there are those on the Left crowing that jubilation on the Israeli Right at Trump’s victory was premature and exaggerated, and that Trump – amid reports he is demanding Israel halt settlement construction beyond the security barrier and tone it down within the settlement blocs – is essentially following the same policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama. They point to the failure of the Trump administration to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as further proof of this position.

And there are still others wondering what impact the toxic political atmosphere in the US will have on Trump’s Mideast policies. Will the president push hard for a Mideast deal in search of a high-profile success, following the colossal failure of his health bill, an inability to get his travel ban through the courts, and favorability ratings that are the lowest in memory of any president at this stage of his tenure?

Ron Prosor, a former ambassador to the United Nations, who is currently a lecturer at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, doesn’t think so. He thinks it is “nonsense” to believe that Trump will search for a high-profile achievement in this part of the world.

“This is the last place in the world you go to in search for success,” Prosor said.

The former ambassador, who also has served as director- general of the Foreign Ministry, does not read overmuch into Greenblatt’s meetings in Jordan with the foreign ministers of numerous Arab states, or the upcoming visits to Washington of Arab leaders.

What this demonstrates, Prosor said, is that Trump is showing “motion” in this part of the world, that he is listening to what everyone has to say, and then will decide.

“This is a smart move,” Prosor said. “But a Mideast peace initiative now because he needs success? This is an oxymoron, a contradiction of terms.”

Ido Aharoni, Israel’s former consul-general to New York, goes even a step further, and says that Trump does not have to go searching for a victory after a string of failures, “because I think it is too early to determine whether he is failing or not.” Aharoni, who today has a consulting practice in Israel and lectures at New York University, said Trump’s early setbacks in Washington could be attributed to a system unable to deal with somebody who wants to come in and upend the existing rules of the game.

Aharoni doubts Trump will turn his full energy toward the Middle East, because he said the president is aware that it is a highly complex issue with no easy gains. Rather than looking for a quick triumph here, Aharoni said, Trump could find a foreign policy success “handling, or manhandling, the United Nations.

“When it comes to foreign policy, this is the easiest issue for him to tackle,” he said. “He can galvanize public support around this issue. The UN has become a ridiculous institute that has nothing to do with solving the problems of humanity or justice. The US is not getting its fair share within the UN bureaucracy, and I believe the UN will be the target in order to show a quick [foreign policy] success.”

Arye Mekel, another former consul-general to New York who today is a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said that Trump will find his victories elsewhere, in the domestic realm. He pointed out that he has already taken steps – in the realm of energy and in unraveling regulations put in place by Obama – that his supporters see as victories. And with time, Mekel said, he will likely pass a healthcare bill.

“Trump’s agency is domestic, and he will seek his victories there,” Mekel said. Plus, he added, Trump is obviously well aware that no other president has had success here, as hard as they have tried.

“He will go through the motions,” according to Mekel. “He will send his envoy here, but I don’t think he will make any exceptional efforts. In order to reach an agreement, you have to put a lot of pressure on both sides, and I don’t see him doing that.”

Mekel argued that if Trump had an appetite for placing heavy pressure on Israel, he would not have appointed Greenblatt as his envoy, or David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel.

Gilead Sher, Ehud Barak’s chief of staff when he served as prime minister and now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, had a somewhat different take. While making clear that he had no intention of getting into dime-store psychology regarding Trump, Sher said he would not “negate” the notion that Trump has a “very strong motivation” for success following the difficulties of his first 70 days in office. And with the Israeli-Palestinian situation at such a low point, he said, “I think he can actually make a difference.”

Sher said that, unlike others in the “moderate camp,” he believes Trump actually does have a good chance of striking a deal.

One of the reasons, he said, is because of the president’s unquestionable business acumen. “He understands the importance of negotiations, the stick and carrot, and of the right balance of diplomacy and pressure. I think he can bring the sides to move a considerable way forward.”

At the same time, Sher cautioned Trump against trying for “one-off efforts to finish this matter once and for all,” an interesting observation coming from someone whose former boss – Barak – tried to do exactly that during the Camp David negotiations with Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton in 2000. While exceedingly complicated, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is solvable, “but not with one blow,” Sher said.

“Today, the path is more important than the results. He needs to understand that, today, he has to go carefully, take a measured, continuous, hands-on approach. I’m not sure he has the patience but hope that he does.”

Trump, Sher said, should put forward a “determined, graduated process” that preserves the possibility of two states “through a series of agreements that are transitional.”

He said the president should also change the formula that was extant in all the stabs at solving the conflict until now: that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and that you don’t have an agreement until everything is finished.

The new formula, according to Sher, should be this: “Whatever is agreed, or is mutually coordinated, should be implemented.” That type of formula, he argued, could help change the current negative dynamics.


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