Analysis: Clock ticking for Trump to finalize Middle East policy

“I do not want to condemn Israel during my tenure. I understand Israel and respect Israel.”

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to the White House this week, and US President Donald Trump wants to be prepared.
White House officials are finalizing language for the president to share for the first time with Netanyahu in private, and for the first time in front of cameras shortly after he’ll host the Israeli premier on Wednesday.
Israel looks forward to working with Trump, says Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer
Senior Trump aides consider Netanyahu’s visit a capstone of their monthslong, delicate review of historic US policy on Middle East peace.
In their first Oval Office meeting, Netanyahu will have a chance to set forth his priorities in the US-Israel relationship. Administration officials expect him to focus on Iran. But Trump will also underscore his desire for a genuine peace process with the Palestinians – and his view that settlement expansion is impeding such a process.
Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, is expected to attend Wednesday’s meetings with Netanyahu and his staff. Trump hopes that Kushner will lead his administration’s effort to right the course of the conflict; in recent weeks, Kushner has been consulting with Arab world leaders in preparation for Netanyahu’s visit.
While Trump’s policy review began quietly before the inauguration, his aides were compelled to tease out their designs after consecutive settlement announcements began cramping their process. The administration has now outlined its overall goal: To navigate a policy that encourages genuine peace talks with the Palestinians while maintaining the image of ironclad US support for the Jewish state.
It’s an ideal balance, but a historically difficult one to strike in practice once you get into the weeds of this decades-old conflict.
Trump’s team is already discovering the challenge settlements pose to peace negotiations and the difficulties facing an American administration when it appears to criticize Israel on this – or any other – issue.
“I don’t want to condemn Israel. There is a long history of Israel enduring condemnations and difficulties,” Trump told Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom last week. “I do not want to condemn Israel during my tenure. I understand Israel and respect Israel.”
But he added as a countervailing point: “I want peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
Trump officials believe that policy convergence with Netanyahu on Iran may provide them with more leverage than Obama had over the Palestinian issue. They are also researching Arab-led peace initiatives that would couple Israeli-Palestinian peace with greater normalization of Israeli-Arab relations.
During the presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton suggested she would adopt a similar posture toward Israel – one less publicly combative, but still bent toward the ultimate goal of achieving Middle East peace. She also thought that Arab League and Egyptian initiatives were most likely to successfully jump-start peace talks.