While Donald Trump’s political foes continued to make the most of his ill-advised statements about the Russia investigation, Trump had some of the best days of his presidency this week. Though he is a man who can’t seem to stop making unforced errors in the White House, he managed to carry off a trip to a region where political careers go to die with aplomb. He navigated appearances in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West Bank without making a misstep. He flattered all of his hosts while at the same time enunciating clear statements of U.S. policy on terrorism, Iran, and peace.
That is why he should declare victory now, withdraw from any further personal involvement in the Middle East peace process, and decline to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians a major priority for his foreign-policy team as it was for President Obama’s. Because if, as appears to be the case, Trump actually thinks he can be the architect of the “ultimate deal” despite the lack of evidence that a conflict-ending solution is in sight, he is setting himself up for the same frustration and humiliation that all of his predecessors have suffered in pursuit of the same goal.
Like all presidents who are in trouble at home, Trump ventured abroad in the hope of foreign success, and that’s exactly what he got. He was seen to be encouraging a Sunni alliance against terror and Iran and made some of the most direct demands ever uttered by an American leader that those in the Muslim world drive extremists out of their midst. Trump said the U.S. wasn’t interested in telling others how to live. But even in a speech in Saudi Arabia that contained a touch of the “America First” ideology he has largely abandoned, he asked a group of Arab despots to respect religious minorities and the aspirations of women. He also rightly championed the idea that Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia were ready to support peace with Israel, since they now look to the Jewish state as an ally against the threat from Iran.
He then went to Israel, where he reaffirmed America’s alliance with the Jewish state and made clear he did not share Obama’s foolish conviction that more “daylight” between our two countries was necessary for peace with the Palestinians. Though he did not move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he did become the first American president to visit the Western Wall while in office. Just as important, in a move little noted in the U.S. but picked up on in Israel, the White House referred to Trump’s visit to “Jerusalem, Israel,” a sign that the administration has little interest in maintaining the legal fiction that the city is not part of the Jewish state.
He also met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, taking the PA leader’s professed interest in peace at face value while treating him like a respected partner. But in pushing for an agreement, he took care to warn Abbas that “peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded, and rewarded,” a clear reference to the PA’s role in subsidizing terrorists and in advocating hatred against Israel and Jews in its school curricula and official media. He also avoided reaffirming Obama’s mistaken obsession with Israeli settlements (he never mentioned the word once), or even predetermining what a peace deal would look like.
In this way, Trump did nothing to heighten tensions or, as Obama repeatedly did, give Palestinians the idea that the U.S. would hammer Israel while ignoring the wrongdoing of the PA and its Hamas rivals. Unfortunately, he also seems to have emerged from his meetings and speeches convinced that, with the help of a master dealmaker, the long-sought “ultimate” agreement that will end the conflict is possible.
He’s almost certainly wrong about that.
Trump has so far relied on an “outside-in” approach to peace negotiations. This is, he believes that the key to a deal is the willingness of the Saudis and other Arab states to advocate for peace, and therefore push, prod, or bribe the Palestinians into ending a conflict other Arabs tired of long ago.
Though Abbas talks a good game about peace, his government continues to pay pensions to terrorists and to foment hate.
The Saudis are interested in strengthening their already substantial under-the-table relationship with Israel. They’ve been looking for a way out of involvement in the century-old war against Zionism since they first scuttled a peace deal with Israel in 2002, a deal in which the Jewish state would withdraw from the lands it won in 1967 in exchange for full recognition from the rest of the Arab world. That proposal has been improved in recent years, as the provision mandating Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian “right of return” that would swamp the country with descendants of the 1948 refugees has been dropped. And thanks to Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the Saudis now view Israel as a natural ally against an Islamist regime in Tehran that threatens them as much as it does the Jews.
All that said, the Saudis’ interest in peace doesn’t necessarily translate into an ability to push the Palestinians to do something they don’t wish to do. And the assumption that the Saudis are as interested in a Palestinian state as Abbas ignores the fact that they have a great deal to fear from the creation of what might turn out to be another terrorist regime undermining regional stability. And that is where the “outside-in” strategy clashes with the reality of Palestinian politics.
Abbas is serving the 13th year of the four-year term as president to which he was elected in 2005. And even when we ignore his obvious lack of legitimacy as an elected leader, the fact is that he doesn’t speak for all Palestinians. The Islamists of Hamas operate Gaza as an independent Palestinian terrorist state in all but name. Abbas won’t call new elections because he fears losing to Hamas. And if he finally strikes a unity deal with Hamas that brings Gaza back into the PA fold, that will make it all the harder for him to sign a peace agreement with Israel that recognizes the legitimacy of the Jewish state — which is to say, the only kind of peace agreement Israel will accept.
Though Abbas talks a good game about peace, his government continues to pay pensions to terrorists and to foment hate. It does so because attempting to change the views of a Palestinian public that still sees its national identity as inextricably tied to war against the Jews would be political suicide. Until a sea change in Palestinian politics occurs that will enable Abbas or a successor to accept an end to the conflict, Trump’s big deal will remain a fantasy. And that hard truth is something no amount of American negotiating or Saudi money can change.
Trump may believe his own assertion that the Palestinians are ready for peace, but this is where his lack of experience and policy knowledge carries more weight than his instincts to negotiate. If he’s right, and Abbas is able to demonstrate that willingness, Netanyahu will have no choice but to negotiate a two-state solution, even if that shatters his current center-right coalition. But Netanyahu isn’t that worried about such a possibility because, unlike Trump, he understands the realities of Palestinian politics.
What is really going on is an elaborate game of chicken in which the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are gambling that their opponent will jump first and blow up the process. If Netanyahu is confident that he will win, it’s because Abbas, like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, has sabotaged every previous effort at peace, including multiple offers of statehood from past Israeli prime ministers.
In short, the time is not ripe for a deal. The U.S. should instead keep its distance from any renewed negotiations and continue to advocate for interim steps, such as increased investment in the Palestinian economy, reform of Abbas’s kleptocratic government, and an end to its support for terror and hate. In doing so, he can help manage an insoluble conflict rather than giving the world false hope. Otherwise, if he decides to invest his dwindling political capital in a peace effort that has a minimal chance of succeeding, he is likely to fail as miserably as Obama and every other American president who gambled his reputation on a fool’s errand.