Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli Right celebrated US President Donald Trump’s election as a green light on settlement building and a red light on peace processing that seemed confirmed by the appointment of a new American ambassador who made Netanyahu look like a peacenik.
The awakening began a few days before what was to be Netanyahu’s triumphal visit to an Obama-free White House, where he’d be warmly embraced. He got the physical embrace and even a shout-out to his wife, but the news must have been chilling to a prime minister who sometimes says he’s for a two-state solution but who has done nothing to prove it.
The master negotiator told his Israeli friend he really was serious about making “the ultimate deal,” and publicly urged him to “hold back on settlements a little bit.”
The prime minister was in big trouble back home and desperate for something to take back to divert attention from the criminal investigations against him, but he left largely empty handed. There was no renewal of the 2004 George W. Bush letter sanctioning construction in the major settlement blocs, no relocation of the embassy, no Jonathan Pollard to take back, no shelving the peace processing and no approval of his request to bless Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.
At their joint news conference, Trump said he had no preference between the one-state or two-state approach. But within 24 hours, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley declared the United States “absolutely” backs the two-state solution.
Last Friday Trump phoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to invite him to the White House to talk about peacemaking.
Abbas said Trump called him his “partner” left the Palestinian leader convinced the US still backed Palestinian statehood – anathema to Netanyahu and his ever-further- right backers.
One of Trump’s special envoys, his chief real estate lawyer Jason Greenblatt, is in Israel this week to begin groundwork for resuscitating the peace talks, while Trump met at the White House with a top Saudi prince to discuss on related topics. Their agenda is believed to include the Arab Peace Initiative as a framework for peace talks. Israel initially rejected it totally; now it is willing to discuss parts of it.
Candidate Trump staked out a hardline position on Israeli-Palestinian issues, but since the election he’s been moving leftward, which makes Netanyahu and the Israeli Right very nervous.
Every president comes in thinking he’s the one who can untie this Gordian knot.
That apparently goes double for the man who wrote The Art of the Deal, and what he lacks in knowledge of the conflict, experience and understanding he more than makes up for in ego and self-confidence.
Let’s get to the bottom line: Trump, whatever his skills, will not make the deal. That’s not really his fault. No peace is possible so long as Netanyahu and Abbas are in power.
Over the past eight years their dislike and distrust for each other has only grown, they are politically weak, not really interested and strangled by their own inertia; the situation has deteriorated to the point where their hold on power is tenuous. So why bother? On one thing both are right: neither really has a partner for peace.
Abbas’s hope is all will collapse and everyone else will force Israel to bend to his terms.
Netanyahu’s prayer is that Trump will be like his predecessors: give it a try and give up.
The Israeli premier knows that Trump has a notoriously short attention span and no appetite for details. But the newly minted president also hates to lose and can be vindictive toward those he feels thwarted him.
What is Trump really looking for? Does he want to bring peace between these old enemies or is it all about the art of the deal? This is not a real-estate negotiation where differences can be measured in dollars or square footage and split down the middle.
The late Rep. Benjamin Rosenthal once admonished a top State Department official that making peace in the Middle East is not like a contract negotiation. “For you it’s one from column A in exchange for one from column B, but for the Israelis it’s a matter of life and death,” he explained.
He felt the diplomats were indifferent to the human element. I once worked for an organization with a number of wealthy real-estate developers on the board, and one of their colleagues – a surgeon – used to say that for them the deal was everything, not substance of the project.
“He loves deals,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. “President Trump is a people person. He’s a dealmaker. He’s a negotiator. He’s a businessman. He understands how to sit in a room and get a deal, and he enjoys it.”
That is too simplistic an approach for this historic conflict. It may be – in part – about territory, but it is no real estate deal, involving as it does religion, centuries-old grievances and a deep connection to the land – on both sides.
Veteran peace processors Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace have said that instead of swinging for the fence Trump ought to go for some solid singles.
For starters focus on preventing Israeli moves – annexation of West Bank areas, expanding settlements – that could permanently block statehood while improving the Palestinian economy and governing institutions and demanding an end to Palestinian incitement. It may be the easiest step for the Palestinians, but it’s one they resist, and has done the most to weaken the Israeli peace camp that they badly need.
Overreaching in pursuit of the ultimate deal – and ultimate ego gratification for a president who seems stuck in early adolescence – is certain to fail and likely to make a bad situation worse.
Trump’s great challenge is to set realistic goals – not the deal of the century but an incremental process out of the public spotlight where the two sides can have serious discussions, not make plays for the grandstands, which so far seems to be their specialties.
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