Trump’s first trip: into belly of the beast

Trump’s first trip: into belly of the beast

Will Mideast swing move past symbolism and into peacemaking?

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House in February. Without a clear Mideast policy, Trump’s upcoming visit raises many questions. Getty Images
President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House in February. Without a clear Mideast policy, Trump’s upcoming visit raises many questions. Getty Images

It was a thorn in U.S.-Israel relations for years.

Right or wrong, former President Barack Obama’s decision, right at the start of his presidency, to visit Muslim nations around the Middle East while skipping Israel was seen as an affront and vote of no-confidence in the U.S. ally. By the time Obama did visit in the first months of his second term, the scar had never healed.

Now, in a contrast with his predecessor, President Donald Trump is planning a quick swing through Israel on his first trip abroad since his inauguration in January.

After stopping in Saudi Arabia, Trump is expected to spend about a day in Israel on May 22. In addition to the usual diplomatic script of meetings with Israeli leaders, Trump is expected to pay a visit to the desert fortress of Masada and also visit the West Bank city of Bethlehem as a gesture to the Palestinians.

The visit will come at a time when Israel will be in a celebratory mood — one day after the president arrives, Israel will mark the 50th anniversary of its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and the unification of Jerusalem.

Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University who wrote a book on Israel-U.S. ties, says the visit is reassuring because it contrasts with the America-first isolationist language of Trump’s campaign.

“By coming to Saudi Arabia and Israel, he’s making a statement that, unlike Obama, he’s standing behind American’s allies,” he said. “It’s trying to send a message that he’s going to be different.”

However, beyond the red-carpet welcome and warm embrace the new president will get, it’s still unclear whether Trump will come with tidings of a new diplomatic initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Indeed, experts say the visit is expected to be long on symbolism but short on peace-making substance because the administration hasn’t yet formulated its own approach to resolving the conflict in seeking “the ultimate agreement.”

“Trump wants to show seriousness, and personal commitment to the peace process — not only to Israel but to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas as well,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst for the International Crisis Group. “He can achieve this just by showing up and meeting both sides.”

So far, the administration has been in a listening mode on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has dispatched its envoy, Jason Greenblatt, to the Middle East and hosted both Abbas and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in separate visits.

Administration officials have divulged little about Trump’s vision for a way to restart peace negotiations and reach an agreement, apart from a few references to having Arab countries involved. Indeed, Trump’s Middle East foray comes at a time when the Israeli and Palestinian sides are far apart in their positions, and mutual trust is at an all-time low. While the majority of ministers in the Israeli government are opposed to the very idea of a Palestinian state, the Palestinian rift between Abbas in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is as deep as ever.

“These are not auspicious circumstances, but the new president of the U.S. — at least at this moment in time — looks determined to push forward,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “We’ll see how determined he is, and how much he will invest personally.”

It remains a mystery how a president known for his distaste for the nitty-gritty of policy-making is going to come up with a compromise to unravel a century-old conflict between Jews and Arabs. Eran noted that much of the senior staff positions of the State Department and the National Security Council still remain unfilled — making the task even more difficult.

Scott Lasensky, a former senior adviser on Israel and the Middle East in the Obama administration, said while presidential visits generate high expectations and interests, concrete results can often be fleeting. The president, he suggested, should focus on modest goals of building trust with both sides, so he’ll have the credibility to nudge them into compromises at a later stage.

“This visit is so early in his tenure: it should mostly be about building credibility with the parties, not making any requests of them,” Lasensky said. “The smartest thing President Trump can do on the visit is earn as much credit as possible with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the Israeli public, and other leaders,” he said. “But he still doesn’t have a fully developed idea of how to deal with Israel-Arab issues.”

The visit comes three weeks after Trump hosted Abbas at the White House. Palestinian officials have given Israeli media upbeat accounts of the meeting, and Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning daily, reported that the Palestinian president discussed the state of negotiations with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

On Tuesday, Abbas told a press conference in Ramallah that he would be ready to meet with Netanyahu under President Trump’s auspices. Zalzberg noted that the renewal of speculation about a peace process will prompt a “blame-game dynamic” in which both sides maneuver in order to cast their rival as the obstacle to talks.

Speaking to Israel Radio, Dore Gold, the former foreign minister director general, said Israel was unlikely to agree to revisiting those [Olmert] talks as a basis for a new round of negotiations. “The Palestinians want to suggest that we renew the negotiations where Olmert finished the negotiations,” he said. “In diplomacy, you can’t obligate Israel if there was no written summary of the talks and there were no agreements, and the reality [on the ground] has changed.”

Some analysts expressed concern that Trump’s talk of going for a final peace deal might be unrealistic, and raise expectations too high.  

“He thinks he can succeed where others have failed; I would be surprised if something substantial comes out of it,” said Bar-Ilan’s Rynhold said. “Both Israel and the Arab leaders will want to give him something so he can go home and say it was a success. Everyone understands that with Trump, it’s very personal, and they want to give him something so his personal standing is maintained. You don’t want to upset him.” 

Instead of the “ultimate deal,” many believe that the U.S. should focus on gradual steps that could improve ties, and preserve the prospects for creating a Palestinian state. Some suggest an agreement on water. Others say Israel should considering widening the area of authority for the Palestinian police. Zalzberg, the analyst for the International Crisis Group, warned that Trump should be focused on the situation on the ground rather than solely on a peace agreement.

“The quarterback needs to know where the end zone is: a touchdown isn’t only a signed piece a paper, it’s getting to a two-state reality,” he said. “If that piece of paper is not achievable and you make zero progress, you will be left with a deterioration as we saw under Obama.”

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