We Can't Predict Whether Trump Will Succeed in the Middle East

At this stage, a great start and a false start would both look much the same.

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One to travel to Rome from Tel Aviv
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One to travel to Rome from Tel Aviv (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

President Trump’s visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories was long on rhetoric and optics but short on substance, particularly regarding the peace process. Trump is clearly determined to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian issue and link it with broader regional concerns. But it’s impossible to judge whether we are headed in the right direction or charging headlong down the same old dead end. That’s because at this stage, a great start that ultimately produces tangible results and a false start that produces quixotic flailing at best or real harm at worst would both look much the same—and much like what we’ve been seeing.

On the positive side, Trump has salvaged the Israeli-Palestinian issue from the diplomatic dumpster of recent years. He’s owning the project, designating his son-in-law and chief adviser, Jared Kushner, as the nominal point-person, and his longtime attorney, Jason Greenblatt, as negotiator. Because this is now a White House undertaking closely associated with his own reputation, when the time comes, he might well be willing to leverage his personal and institutional credibility to pressure parties. That can’t be overestimated. Barack Obama’s second term shows what can happen when an American president walks away.

Moreover, both Trump and Greenblatt have established warm relations, not only with Israel, but also with the Palestinian leadership. That’s especially significant because it’s so unexpected. Many observers, particularly on the Israeli ultra-right, gathered from Trump’s campaign that he would embrace the Israeli settlement agenda, abandoning decades of international law and U.S. policy.

Nothing of the kind has happened. The campaign pledge, which continued into the interregnum before the inauguration, to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, has been shelved. Trump has somewhat adjusted the (already attenuated) American position on Israeli settlements; he’s gone from saying that they are “unhelpful” to saying that they are “not good for peace.” And he’s urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold off” on more settlements. The administration seems to have reached a tacit understanding with Israel roughly similar to one George W. Bush developed with Netanyahu on settlements, agreeing that they can be built “up but not out.” This means Israel can add housing units to existing settlements, but not expand them territorially or create new ones, especially in highly strategic areas that alter the political equation and further undermine prospects for a Palestinian state.

On several other crucial issues, Trump has maintained longstanding American policies based on international law, and has been willing to irk Israel in the process. His advisers made it clear that, when Trump visited occupied East Jerusalem, Netanyahu was not welcome to accompany him because it is “not your territory, it is part of the West Bank,” despite Israel’s claims to have annexed East Jerusalem and insistence that all of Jerusalem is its “eternal and undivided capital.” Israelis have been making much hay recently about payments by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to the families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, including those accused of terrorism. Trump may have alluded to the issue, very obliquely, during his press conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday, and reportedly raised the subject, but without much emphasis, during their meetings at the White House and in Bethlehem.

Greenblatt is reportedly working on a series of economic initiatives to improve living conditions for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, which should also help stabilize the Palestinian political situation. It’s no substitute for an actual peace process, but it’s an important step forward under difficult circumstances. And the political credibility of Abbas has been greatly enhanced by Trump’s embrace of his leadership, the Palestinian role in the process, and the resurrection of the issue. None of that will survive indefinitely in a diplomatic vacuum, but it’s all very helpful.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is bending over backwards to shower praise on Trump, who, in turn, seems to have really won over most Jewish Israelis by heaping his own accolades on their country. And the biggest lovefest of all is taking place between Trump and Gulf Arab leaders, particularly those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Trump wants to bring them and other Arab countries into the mix by adding a regional component to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He is hoping that these countries can add an additional incentive to Israel through greater regional legitimacy and recognition, and forging a common front against Iran’s aggressive regional agenda (particularly with an eye to the expiration of the nuclear agreement). Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem willing, as demonstrated by a draft “discussion document” outlining proposed stronger ties to Israel in exchange for Israeli curbs on settlement activities and easing restrictions on Palestinians.

These personal relationships, and the accumulation of political credibility, can play a crucial role, but, history suggests, only in a limited way and at key moments in a process. Political considerations and national security imperatives are more likely to shape the choices leaders on all sides make. And that’s where grounds for doubt become daunting indeed.

Trump confronts in Netanyahu an Israeli leader whose instincts are risk-averse, who is extremely skeptical that an agreement with the Palestinians, however limited, is either achievable or desirable, and who is apparently convinced that regional instability makes significant compromises with the Palestinians out of the question. Moreover, in order to even make minimal concessions, he would almost certainly have to reshuffle his cabinet, most likely jettisoning the ultra-right-wing Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett and replacing him with Labor Party leaders. That would open a very vulnerable flank on Netanyahu’s political extreme right, particularly given that the whole point of such a move would be to make some gestures toward the Palestinians in order to reach out to the Arabs, as Trump is urging.

The Arab leaders face an analogous conundrum. They, too, would like to forge a closer working relationship with Israel, mainly to form a united front against Iran, and, indeed, have already taken some significant, but very low-key, steps in that direction. But going further, especially more openly, would be exceptionally difficult for them unless there is a functional peace process that seems to be keeping the prospects of a two-state solution alive, if not leading directly to an end to the occupation. Without progress on the Palestinians, they can’t go much further toward Israel than they already have, which isn’t really all that far.

The Palestinians are in the weakest and most exposed position of all. They have almost no way of leveraging the Israelis, and, while they can always say no to any proposition, their national, economic, and political circumstances are so dire that there would be a serious temptation to consider almost any offer, as long as it’s not packaged as an “end of conflict and end of claims” final status agreement. Yet even while Abbas and company would probably want to take advantage of any opportunity to improve Palestinian lives, even modestly advance their national goals, and enhance their own political position, they would face massive opposition. Hamas surely would reject almost anything the PLO agrees to, but so might dissident factions within Fatah, who are currently jockeying for position to succeed the 82-year-old, ailing Abbas. So, even if it logically makes no sense for Palestinians to reject confidence-building measures, they still might feel constrained to do so politically.

The big danger is that Trump is raising expectations only to see them dashed because he lacks a real plan. This is a very dangerous game in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Even with the best of intentions, miscalculations can cause enormous harm. During his first term, Obama, following the Roadmap of the Middle East Quartet, tried to secure a settlement freeze from Israel. Israel agreed to a temporary “freeze” with so many restrictions and caveats that actual settlement construction never really slowed. Then Israel refused an astonishingly generous package asking for a mere three-month extension of the agreement (which, at that point, would have seriously slowed settlement building). Obama walked away from the issue, leaving the Palestinians holding the settlement-freeze bag. Since then, we haven’t had any real negotiations, and Palestinians are still trying to figure out what to do with Obama’s unwelcome present.

Since Trump casts himself as the anti-Obama, he would do well to study this very carefully. In diplomacy in general, as in medicine, the starting point must be to first do no harm. Nowhere is this truer than between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

By paying close attention to the issue and injecting a novel and potentially fruitful regional approach into the mix, Trump may counterintuitively prove to be just the iconoclastic and innovative force that can shake up this moribund process and get it moving again, finally. Alternatively, this may be just another Trumpian boondoggle, a baseless and reckless gamble at everybody else’s expense. The problem is, under the current circumstances, no one can be sure which it is, because at this stage they’d both look pretty much like what we are currently seeing. Yes, in the Middle East, pessimists are usually proven right. But they never solve anything, and solutions are ultimately required.