Trump’s team faces reality in the Middle East

It might seem like a no-brainer, but it's nothing short of an epiphany.

Jared Kushner meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 21 2017. (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
Jared Kushner meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 21 2017.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
The statement the White House issued late Wednesday night following a more than two-hour meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump’s Mideast point man Jared Kushner was, at first glance, extremely innocuous.
Kushner was joined by Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and the communiqué that followed the session with the prime minister was bland and seemed to reveal – true to form for these types of statements – very little.
“The meeting was productive and the two sides reaffirmed their commitment to advancing President Trump’s goal of a genuine and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians that enhances stability in the region,” the statement read.
“The three United States officials discussed Israel’s priorities and potential next steps with Prime Minister Netanyahu, acknowledging the critical role Israel plays in the security of the region.”
But then came this: “The United States officials and Israeli leadership underscored that forging peace will take time and stressed the importance of doing everything possible to create an environment conducive to peacemaking.”
Boom. There it is. Hidden inside all the diplo-speak was an acknowledgment that – you know what – this Mideast peace-making stuff is tough going and will take time.
While that may appear as the ultimate no-brainer, when put into the context of some of Trump’s previous comments on the Mideast, it is nothing short of an epiphany. It is a sign that after five months of meetings with everyone across the board – from Israeli and Palestinian leaders and thinkers and opinion-shapers, to leaders from throughout the Arab world – the Trump Mideast team has hit the shoals of reality.
Consider this: During his meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House in May, Trump said that reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal “is something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
Or consider this: In December 2015, when he was still a candidate, Trump said in an interview that within six months in office he would let the public know whether a peace deal – a deal he characterized as the “ultimate deal” – was indeed possible.
The statement that the White House issued after Wednesday’s meeting – a strikingly similar statement was issued after the team’s meeting with Abbas a few hours later – was a clear indication that the Trump team now realizes things are going to take a lot longer than first expected.
That being said, Washington is adopting a much different approach to peacemaking than the previous administration, a sign that it has learned from US President Barack Obama’s mistakes.
And the mother of all Obama’s mistakes on the Israeli-Palestinian issue came when – just a few months after being sworn into office – he made a very clear demand for Israel to stop all settlement activity, everywhere: in Ramot in Jerusalem and Yitzhar in Samaria; in Gush Etzion, Ma’aleh Adumim, Hebron and Avnei Hefetz. It was all the same, and it all had to stop. Now.
That demand essentially handcuffed the entire diplomatic process for the next eight years. No Israeli government – especially not a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu – could cede to that demand. And the Palestinians, from that moment onward, could never ask for anything less.
And that demand did something else as well. In negotiations, what happens if the other side calls your bluff? What if the other side hears your demand and quite simply says “No?” The answer: You are stuck.
What if the US demands that Israel stop settlement construction, or there will be no negotiations, and then Israel does not stop settlement construction? There will be no negotiations.
The same is true of the Palestinians. What happens if Washington demands the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people before there are negotiations, and they refuse? There will be no negotiations.
The Trump administration is taking a different approach. It is making no public demands. It is not saying that Israel must stop construction, rather that unbridled construction everywhere does not help the process.
It is not saying that the Palestinians must end paying salaries to terrorists and their families, rather that – as Trump said during his recent visit to Bethlehem – peace “can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded or rewarded.”
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Similarly, it is not publicly asking the Persian Gulf states and Saudi Arabia to make some normalization steps toward Israel, rather suggesting that this would be helpful.
And, all the while, it is probing the sides to see what they are – and are not – willing to give, and then trying to see if there are ways to bridge the gaps. And it is doing this all very much behind closed doors, without megaphone diplomacy, without public threats of laying down an American blueprint, or dangling promises of high-profile summits.
It is hard work, and it is slow work.
Trump – both in the campaign and in his first few months of office – raised expectations that he knew the magic formula for Mideast peace, or would find it relatively soon.
The statement put out after Kushner’s visit is an obvious effort to lower expectations.
The words “forging peace will take time” do not constitute a brilliant diplomatic insight. But it is acknowledgment of a reality that this diplomatic process is hard and will take a long time, much more so than Trump first anticipated or declared.
And that realization itself is a good place to start.