Trump Goes After 'the Ultimate Deal'

The American president has surprised everyone with his enthusiasm for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But he might not understand what he's getting into.

President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver remarks before a dinner at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017.
President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver remarks before a dinner at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017.  (Ariel Schalit / Reuters)

JERUSALEM—Is Donald Trump the last best hope for the peace process?

As a candidate, Trump was an iconoclast in many ways, but by and large he hewed to the positions on Israel typical of Republican presidential candidates. Trump promised to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and railed against the Iran deal.

Trump’s promises reassured the Israeli right and the pro-Israel American right. He earned rave reviews from figures like the Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who declared after the election that “Trump's victory is a tremendous opportunity for Israel to immediately announce its intention to renege on the idea of establishing Palestine in the heart of the country—a direct blow to our security and the justice of our cause.”

But Trump had, more than once, expressed an interest in the peace process during the campaign, even saying at one point that he would be a “neutral guy” on the issue. And as president, Trump has so far shown a surprising amount of focus and flexibility on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—and a surprising amount of willingness to spend political and diplomatic capital on it, seeking what he calls the “ultimate deal.” Trump repeatedly professed his wish to make such a deal during Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to Washington earlier in May, which came a few weeks after Trump publicly asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference to “hold back” on Israeli settlements in the West Bank “for a little bit.” Trump hasn’t specifically promised that the ultimate deal means a two-state solution (“I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said in February), but his National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has referred to “Palestinian self-determination.”

This has heartened veterans of the peace process who have seen negotiations break down repeatedly, most recently during the Obama administration. Trump arrived in Israel on Monday, with what several people described as an opportunity to inject more life into the moribund peace process than it’s had since the last round of talks broke down in 2014.

But the political chaos engulfing his White House is a distraction, and Trump doesn’t appear to have a deep appreciation of just how difficult and detailed these negotiations are—“It is something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” Trump said during Abbas’s visit to Washington—and underlying conditions on both sides remain unfavorable. Plus, Trump administration officials spent the week before the visit getting into spats with the Israelis over whether the Western Wall is in Israel and whether he will move the embassy to Jerusalem. The most serious issue of all was Trump’s sharing classified intelligence on ISIS, reportedly provided by the Israelis, with Russian officials visiting him in the Oval Office. (Trump may have further antagonized his hosts in declaring at a joint appearance with Netanyahu in Jerusalem that he had “never mentioned” Israel in his meeting with the Russians, raising questions about whether he was confirming publicly for the first time that Israel had in fact provided the intelligence.)

Presidents have in the past seen foreign trips as a “reset” opportunity; at the height of the Watergate scandal Nixon traveled to the Middle East. But Trump’s chaos complicates the U.S. president’s ability to make meaningful progress on peace. “For example, the president’s ability to get Congress to do things is greatly diminished,” said Elliott Abrams, the former Bush and Reagan official who was considered earlier this year to be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s deputy. “That means their ability to make promises to the parties or threats to the parties is no longer what it used to be.”

Still, diplomats with experience in the peace process seem optimistic about Trump’s apparent seriousness.

“Trump has clearly made it a priority,” said Martin Indyk, executive vice president at the Brookings Institution and former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And as for whether White House chaos will inhibit Trump’s dealmaking, Indyk pointed out that Henry Kissinger successfully negotiated agreements between Israel and Egypt, as well as Israel and Syria, while Nixon was in the thick of Watergate. Trump “has appointed an envoy to deal with the parties and his son-in-law to oversee it. He has deferred moving the embassy to Jerusalem to avoid disrupting the effort. He has insisted on curbing settlement expansion. He has built up Abbas by treating him with respect. And his envoy is pressing the Israelis to take meaningful steps to allow the Palestinians to grow their economy.”

“It’s almost exactly what Bill Clinton did when he was president,” Indyk added. Trump might chafe at the comparison, but it was under Clinton that a deal seemed, for a time, to be truly within reach. The iconic photo of Clinton looking on as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn after signing the Oslo Accords represents the kind of role Trump appears to want for himself.

“It is very clear that he is himself personally motivated in the sense that there is no political logic for him to focus on it,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a scholar at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy and former Palestinian Authority official. “It’s something that’s coming from him.”

Trump’s enthusiasm about a deal has alarmed the Israeli right, even while giving the left an opening. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said at a Jerusalem Post conference earlier in May that he thinks Trump is “adamantly committed to this cause” and “so far the way he's handled this mission is impeccable.”

“I think the Israeli extreme right was too quick to celebrate Trump’s victory and to be under the impression that he would sort of work with them with a one state solution strategy,” said the lawmaker Erel Margalit, who is challenging Herzog for Labor leadership. “I think that eventually, just like how I didn’t think the extreme right should see Trump as the messiah for their one state solution, the center left shouldn’t see Trump as the messiah either.”

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But there is also the matter of who will actually conduct the diplomacy. In the past, the peace process was staffed by a core group of experts steeped in the details. But under Trump, the effort is being led by government neophytes—notably Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, who was previously one of Trump’s lawyers.

Despite being new, Greenblatt has been getting good reviews. He “has really impressed people as a serious person who’s open-minded, who’s listening on all sides, who’s trying to construct a process that will work,” said Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama.

Unlike Kushner, who has a long list of responsibilities ranging from peace in the Middle East to the opioid crisis, Middle East peace is Greenblatt’s main task. Presumably, Greenblatt will lead the American negotiating team if talks start up again. But besides him, “who’s the team?” asked Abrams. “If we’re going to go about this seriously, you need a team. You may not need a team as big as Kerry had ... but you need a few people who are very familiar with the security side, the legal side, the geography.”

“I don’t think that the internal situation either in Palestine or in Israel is conducive to enough aggregation of power on the part of negotiators to deliver,” said Ziad Asali, founder of American Task Force on Palestine, a group aligned with former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But “It’s always been the case that the president of the United States is the most important power to nudge this process to a meaningful landmark.”

There is a belief among some on the right of the Israel debate that the three administration officials most in tune with what they want are Vice President Mike Pence, the new U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon (despite the fact that the nationalist ex-Breitbart chairman Bannon has been accused of past anti-Semitism, accusations that have concerned some Jewish organizations). Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who is a close ally of Netanyahu, has privately characterized Bannon as the most pro-Israel member of the administration. (A spokesman for Dermer did not immediately return a request for comment.)

Bannon keeps a whiteboard in his office of Trump’s campaign promises—one of which was that the embassy would be moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. But the administration has signaled that it won’t move the embassy now. Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson—who declared in February that Trump would be the “best president ever for Israel”—was reportedly “furious” at Trump for the shift. "If Pence, Bannon, and Friedman were running Israel policy the embassy would already be in Jerusalem,” said Noah Pollak, a pro-Israel foreign policy consultant.

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Trump touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport on Monday afternoon, joined by most of his senior staff, who sat together under a blistering sun to watch him speak on the tarmac. They arrived to an Israeli military display and the full set of Israeli government ministers, who had been ordered by Netanyahu to come to the event. They also arrived on the heels of a couple of encouraging signs; Israel’s cabinet voted on Sunday to approve a package aimed at easing Palestinian economic hardship as a trust-building measure, and The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Gulf states had offered Israel improved relations in exchange for reviving talks with the Palestinians.

So far, Trump’s foreign trip has gone without major disasters (apart from his drawing attention to reports that Israel was the source of the intelligence he shared with the Russians). But there’s a lot of room for error when it comes to Israel. Before arrival, Tillerson briefed reporters on Air Force One, telling them that Trump “feels there’s a moment in time here. We have the opportunity to advance the peace discussions with the Israelis and the Palestinians.” But Tillerson also referred to Tel Aviv as the “home of Judaism” and, asked whether the Western Wall is in Israel, answered that it is in Jerusalem—again showing that the administration is on something of a learning curve and has not yet learned how to finesse some of the thorniest aspects of the issue. (Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, is the most important city in the Jewish faith. The issue of whether or not the Western Wall is in Israel is politically loaded because of its implications for the status of East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City where the wall is located. The wall’s status became a point of renewed controversy this past week after Israeli officials asked if Netanyahu could accompany Trump on his visit there and were reportedly rebuffed by a U.S. official who told them it was “not your territory.”)

In their remarks at Ben Gurion, it was Netanyahu who mentioned the Palestinians, and not Trump. “Israel's hand is extended in peace to all our neighbors, including the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said. Trump kept his remarks more general, saying: “We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and to its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace.”

Trump meets Netanyahu on Monday in Jerusalem and Abbas on Tuesday in Bethlehem. Israeli media had reported plans for a trilateral meeting among Trump, Abbas, and Netanyahu, and rumors had been circulating up until a few days ago that it could still happen, but Trump’s schedule still doesn’t include it and it no longer looks to be in the works.

As a candidate, Trump told the Republican National Convention that “I alone can fix it.” But the peace process is not a matter of willpower, and it’s not a matter of one person, even the U.S. president. Trump seemed to finally start to grasp just how advanced the level of difficulty on this is while giving remarks with Netanyahu later on Monday night.

“I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all,” he said. “But I have a feeling that we’re going to get there. Eventually.”