Trump in the Promised Land

As the new US president prepares for his first foreign tour, talk of a renewed peace process is heating up and creating political strains on both sides of the Israeli- Palestinian divide.

US President Donald Trump appears on stage at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, US April 29, 2017.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump appears on stage at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, US April 29, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump arrives in Israel and the Palestinian Authority on May 22, following a stop in Saudi Arabia, on his first foreign trip, as he seeks to build on common fears of Iran and ISIS and to promote a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
The 24-hour visit will end as the country marks Jerusalem Day beginning on the evening of May 23, just as the president leaves for the Vatican, his next stop on a tour that, in the words of one senior administration official, will bring together “different religions in the fight against intolerance and to defeat radicalism.”
This year sees the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in the Six Day War and the renewal of Jewish sovereignty over the holy city for the first time since the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
Israel is hoping Trump will use the proximity to the symbolic date to fulfill his campaign promise and announce the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But while location may be everything in the president’s previous incarnation as a real estate mogul, what will matter here is what is said, and both Israel and the Palestinians are reportedly trying to influence the speech’s content. According to a report in Haaretz, Israel’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer is trying to persuade Trump to use the occasion to say the magic words: Jerusalem is Israel’s undivided capital.
ON THAT note, an extraordinary, headline-grabbing, public spat took place on May 14 when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that a decision on the embassy would very much depend on “whether Israel views it [the move to Jerusalem] as helpful to a peace initiative or perhaps a distraction.” Netanyahu volleyed the ball right back into the US court when he shot back a few hours later that Israel has clearly stated its position on the matter. “Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem won’t harm the peace process.
The opposite is true. It will correct a historic injustice by advancing [it] and shattering a Palestinian fantasy that Jerusalem isn’t Israel’s capital,” Netanyahu retorted.
Either way, Trump will have to make at least a temporary decision on the matter because the waiver on the Jerusalem Embassy Act that has been used by all US presidents to block the move on national security grounds since the act was passed in 1995 is up for renewal on June 1.
But Jerusalem is only the appetizer. Trump has said several times since taking the presidency that he is determined to pull off the “ultimate deal” and, as the visit approaches, the rumor mill has been in overdrive.
The London-based Al Hayat daily said a three-way summit between the president, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is rumored to be in the cards. The Jerusalem Post quoted US sources as saying Abbas had “crossed the Rubicon” and that he had voiced unprecedented willingness to reach a peace deal with Israel and was now ready to come back to the table without preconditions, going back on his previous demand for a settlement freeze.
So what will Trump’s peace plan look like and what are the chances he could succeed where four previous US presidents have failed? With typical braggadocio, the president has said that achieving a deal is “something that, I think, is frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
Trump believes he can play on the common fears of Iranian regional meddling and nuclear ambitions that unite Israel, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Sunni states, as well as of ISIS, even though Islamic State is now firmly in retreat. The president further believes that he can leverage those concerns to push the Saudis and others to put pressure on the Palestinians to make concessions on the core issues: borders, security arrangements, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of return for descendants of refugees.
At the same time, Trump may exert pressure on Netanyahu to turn his rhetoric on a two-state solution into action. After the initial euphoria on the Israeli Right in the wake of Trump’s election, there is increasing apprehension that he is changing his tune.
TRUMP’S NATIONAL Security Adviser H.R. McMaster provided a clue to Trump’s strategy, at an Israel Independence Day event in Washington on May 3, when he said, “Arduous circumstances, including Islamic State militancy and a growing regional threat from Iran may allow us to resolve what some have regarded as intractable problems, problems like disputes between Israel and the Palestinians.”
In a later statement, he dropped a hint at what Israel could expect when he said the president would “express his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians.”
Much will depend, however, on what Trump has in mind when he talks about dignity and self-determination. Does he mean a full-fledged Palestinian state or is he buying into Netanyahu’s state-minus vision of self-government and expanded autonomy? One problem Trump will face beyond a lack of mutual trust between Israel and the Palestinians that has hit rock bottom is that both Netanyahu and Abbas face political constraints on moving forward in negotiations.
Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition partner Naftali Bennett, head of the Bayit Yehudi party, has been flexing his political muscles, warning against any concessions and blaming Netanyahu for creating a vacuum that has pushed Trump back from the overtly pro-Israel rhetoric of his campaign to now seeking to revive the diplomatic process and clinch a peace deal.
“I expected that this is what would happen if we were passive,” Bennett told the AL Monitor website. “We should have acted as soon as Trump took office and maybe even earlier. There was a vacuum and we should have filled it but we hesitated and got the same old template instead. You have to tell the truth, and the truth is that a Palestinian state will not be created in the foreseeable future.”
Bennett continued, “Trump is talking about a deal? Let’s talk about the real deal.
The real deal is economic peace and expanded [Palestinian] autonomy. That’s what there is in the foreseeable future. There won’t be anything better than that. All the rest is an illusion, and it will be shattered.”
Netanyahu, for his part, has been heeding the advice reportedly given to him by incoming US Ambassador David Friedman not to cross Trump and, with the exception of his embassy retort, has remained silent on the issue of talks.
One factor that may influence how far Netanyahu is willing to go is his legal troubles.
The prime minister is under investigation on corruption charges, and if an indictment is served, he may want to use a negotiation process to turn the spotlight away. If he does press ahead with any diplomatic moves, he will likely be able to count on a safety net from the opposition.
HAILING TRUMP’S “impeccable peace efforts,” Isaac Herzog, head of the center- left Zionist Union party, said at the Annual Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on May 7, “I have grave doubts about Bibi’s intentions. But if he wants peace, he will enjoy political support even from my camp.”
On the Palestinian side, Abbas, too, faces political troubles. Currently in the 13th year of his four-year term, the octogenarian leader’s political legitimacy is flagging. Voter turnout for municipal elections held May 14 barely scraped past the 50 percent mark, reflecting growing frustration with political parties and the PA. Despite its Islamist rival Hamas boycotting the elections, Fatah failed to gain clear-cut majorities in several cities. As Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas, warns, “If these issues of legitimacy remain unaddressed, no leader can conclude peace ‒ no matter what the terms of the deal may be.”
Abbas is also facing challenges within his own party. Supreme among these is an ongoing hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails led by Marwan Barghouti, the charismatic and popular leader of Fatah’s paramilitary wing, Tanzim, who is serving five consecutive life sentences for the murder of Israelis in the second intifada and is considered a possible successor to Abbas.
In a statement smuggled out via his lawyer to coincide with the end of the strike’s first month and Nakba Day, the day Palestinians mark the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation, Barghouti issued a warning to the Fatah-led PA against resuming negotiations with Israel “based on the same old rules.”
He attacked Abbas’s recent signs of flexibility vis-à-vis any peace talks saying negotiations would be pointless unless Israel commits ahead of time to withdrawing to an immediate settlement freeze; to withdraw to the 1967 borders; and to accept the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees.
At the end of the day, expectations for a breakthrough are likely to be unrealistic.
What will remain is the blame game and, given the volatile situation in the Palestinian territories, possibly a major outbreak of violence.
Rather than going for the ultimate deal, Trump may be better advised to go for sweeping interim measures that loosen Israel’s grip on the Palestinian population; boost the Palestinian economy; strengthen the PA’s governance; and, hopefully, lead to greater security for all.