Washington Watch: The hubris trap

Not everyone is happy to learn that Trump wants to prove his bragging about being the great negotiator who can cut the deal of the century.

PM Netanyahu and President Trump (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
PM Netanyahu and President Trump
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
I wish President Donald Trump great success in his goal of negotiating a peace agreement that both the Israelis and Palestinians will embrace. It will be the greatest deal of his career and give him glory that all his money can’t buy. This will be his chance to prove his boast about being a world renowned negotiator, and to show he can cut a historic deal with some help from his Jewish sonin- law, Jared Kushner, and a pair of Jewish lawyers.
Not everyone is happy to learn that Trump wants to prove his bragging about being the great negotiator who can cut the deal of the century. Least of all Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters here and in Israel.
They had hailed Trump’s election as the end of any talk about Palestinian statehood, the beginning of unlimited West Bank settlement construction, relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem and unconditional political and diplomatic support.
They were shocked when the embassy move was put on hold and Trump told Netanyahu in his first White House visit to cool it with the settlement expansion and that he’s serious about making peace.
In case Netanyahu didn’t get the message, Trump dispatched Alan Dershowitz to let him let him know the president “thinks that the time is ripe for a deal and that it is possible,” the celebrity law professor told Haaretz.
The same message was also delivered personally by Jason Greenblatt, the president’s real estate lawyer and Middle East envoy, to Arab leaders meeting in Jordan last week.
Greenblatt went to Israel to reach an arrangement on limiting settlement construction but failed. Netanyahu had told his security cabinet that “we need to be considerate of the president’s requests,” but the talks broke down because the prime minister reportedly dug his heels in, said sources close to the talks.
A big reason Netanyahu didn’t attend last week’s AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington is believed to be that he wasn’t ready to see Trump so soon after their disappointing meeting in February. He knew Trump would be meeting with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders this week and that they would be surprised and happy that the president wanted to revive the peace talks. The prime minister was under American pressure to come up with some confidence building measures for the Palestinians and a curb on settlements, and, as usual, he wasn’t ready.
Only a few weeks into the job and Trump is learning that, like repealing and replacing Obamacare, Middle East peacemaking is a lot more difficult than he ever thought, if he thought much about it at all.
Trump exudes self-confidence but has a reputation as essentially lazy when it comes to studying his subject and learning the details.
He is falling into the classic Middle East hubris trap, but he is not alone. Most of his predecessors were also convinced that they, unlike everyone else, could make peace between the Arabs and the Jews. Two actually succeeded: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
But only partially and only because they had something none of the others had before or since: willing partners.
Trump has nothing of the sort and even his best powers of persuasion are unlikely to bring around Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are politically weak, unwilling and unable to make historic decisions – and who despise and distrust each other, as well.
Arab leaders are telling Trump that they reject Netanyahu’s proposal to focus on a regional peace with Israel as a path toward a Palestinian deal. They’re insisting on an agreement on Palestinian statehood first. Netanyahu has said he might give the Palestinians a “state minus” but no more.
“As a deal maker, I’d like to do... the deal that can’t be made,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal. I don’t doubt that he does. But until there’s a significant change of leadership on both sides, his dream is doomed.
The Israelis and Palestinians will humor him, try to appear interested, but that’s not because they want peace. It’s because they want to avoid getting on the wrong side of a president with a reputation for being petty and vindictive. Their real goal is to avoid being blamed for Trump’s inevitable failure to make the deal of the century. One thing is certain: Trump will make sure the whole world knows it was everyone else’s fault but his.
Netanyahu has the advantage because he knows how to make the right sounds and in English. He says he’s ready for unconditional peace talks even though he has a list of conditions, but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas isn’t clever enough to call his bluff. Instead he will produce his own list of preconditions (prisoner releases, total settlement freeze) that he knows Netanyahu will reject.
Abbas’s problem is not just a lack of courage but the delusion that if the Palestinians hold out long enough the international community will step in and impose a solution on their terms.
The Jerusalem Post
reported last week that the White House is “exploring” holding a summit meeting for Israelis, Palestinians, Saudis and the Gulf states. It is unlikely the Saudis, who would be a prize catch for the Israelis, would show up until they were sure it would be more than a photo-op.
And if it does turn out to be just an empty photo-op, don’t be surprised if Trump walks away from it all – as prescribed in his Art of the Deal – leaving behind a trail of barbed tweets pointing fingers of blame in every direction but his.