National Security & Defense

Is Trump Heading Down the Rabbit Hole of Middle East Peace?

Donald Trump meets with Benjamin Netanyahu in September 2016 (Kobi Gideon Government Press Office/Handout/Reuters)
If he thinks he can solve the puzzle with a clever deal, he’s setting himself up for failure.

When Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the White House for the first time since Donald Trump became president, the atmosphere will be a lot friendlier than it was in his previous visits. President Trump is predisposed to reverse most of his predecessor’s policies, so President Obama’s least favorite foreign leader is bound to receive a warmer welcome than he is used to. But in the last week, the noises coming out of both the White House and the State Department have indicated that, as was the case with all of his predecessors, there is going to be a considerable gap between Trump’s campaign rhetoric about Israel and the policies that he will actually pursue.

The focus shouldn’t be on details such as whether or when the U.S. embassy is moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or just how far Trump will go in seeking to restrain the growth of West Bank settlements. The interesting question to be asked is whether Trump means what he says about seriously pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. If so, he is setting himself — and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who will apparently be tasked with negotiating a deal — up for the same kind of failure experienced by every president since Richard Nixon.

The attention given Trump’s statements about settlements is understandable. Trump’s criticism of Obama, his promise to move the U.S. embassy, and his decision to name an ambassador to Israel who is an advocate of the settlement movement convinced many Israelis that he would be giving Netanyahu free rein in the West Bank. Instead, he has made it clear the U.S. expects Israel to behave in a manner that will preserve the theoretical possibility of a peace deal, however remote it seems.

That suits Netanyahu fine, since it will make it easier for him to fend off pressure from his coalition partner and bitter rival Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, which is to the right of the prime minister’s Likud. It also represents a genuine shift in the policy pursued by Obama, who repudiated George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon tacitly recognizing Israel’s right to hold on to much of East Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs where more than three-quarters of all settlers live and its right to build there. Trump appears to have reverted to Bush’s position and has signaled a readiness to get tougher on the Palestinians who received a virtual free ride from Obama for their intransigence and encouragement of terror.

Unlike Obama, Trump does not seem to believe he has a mission to save Israel from itself or that he has the right to force its government to take actions that may undermine its security. That ought to be more than enough to satisfy the American pro-Israel community all by itself.

But Trump’s recent comments also make clear that he harbors ambitions to cut the Gordian Knot of Middle East peace. That’s something that ought to worry both Trump’s supporters and friends of Israel.

Neither Trump’s good will for Israel nor his willingness to get tough with the Palestinians can create a compromise where one is currently impossible.

Trump is attracted to the idea of being the man who can do what has proven impossible for so many others. He has given the impression that he thinks peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the ultimate real-estate transaction and that a master negotiator and dealmaker would be well qualified to pull it off. But the impediment to the resolution of a century-old Arab war against Zionism has never been insufficient negotiating skills. Rather it is the fact that Palestinians’ national identity is still inextricably linked to the continuation of the conflict in a way that has caused them to reject repeated attempts at compromise, including Israeli peace offers that would have given them the state they say they want.

The strategy Trump may pursue is the opposite of his predecessor’s. Where Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, believed the answer lay in getting the two parties to agree — which in practice meant pressure on Israel to make concessions while asking little or nothing of the Palestinians — the Trump State Department appears to think leverage will come from Arab states that want better relations with Israel but can’t be seen to throw the Palestinians under the bus. The assumption, as was made clear in a New York Times article published last week, is that the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the Jordanians have the ability to lean on the Palestinians and get them to finally take “yes” for an answer.

But while these Arab states have been scared into the arms of Israel by Obama’s appeasement of Iran and are, for all intents and purposes, tacit allies of the Jewish state now, Washington is wrong to think they can make the Palestinians give up the conflict. Like every other conceivable strategy, this one has been tried before by Republicans and Democrats — e.g., the Saudis’ Arab Peace Initiative — and there is no reason to think resurrecting it now will nudge either the supposedly moderate, kleptocratic Palestinian Authority or its decidedly immoderate Hamas rivals to make peace with the Jewish state.

In short, neither Trump’s good will for Israel nor his willingness to get tough with the Palestinians can create a compromise where one is currently impossible. There’s little doubt that an overwhelming majority of Israelis would accept a two-state solution if they were being asked to trade land for peace rather than land for terror, as they did in the 1993 Oslo Accords and Sharon’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. But so long as the Palestinians and their corrupt and violent leaders are stuck in a mindset that causes them to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, it won’t matter how clever Trump or his son-in-law can be when it comes to seeking compromise.

The wisest course would be for Trump to resist a hubristic impulse that is certain to bring failure. Whether or not he has the ability to ignore the siren call of ambition and diplomatic glory is the real question as he opens a new chapter in the history of the U.S.-Israel alliance this week.

— Jonathan S. Tobin is a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.

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