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‘Maybe it’s not as difficult as people have thought’

In the make-believe world of US President Donald Trump, bringing about peace between the Israelis and Palestinians is apparently considerably easier than what all of those laboring on it for decades have made out of it. This is the impression left by his comments in a White House meeting last week with visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Trump said over lunch: “It is something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” One wonders who he is trying to convince: The Israelis, Palestinians, the international community or maybe himself. There must be a number of former US presidents and secretaries of state who are scratching their heads, or more likely tearing their hair out, over hearing this.

After decades of attempts to end this protracted and complex conflict, and nearly a quarter of a century since the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn, settling the conflict seems as far off as ever. Trump has been unexpectedly active on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and projects positivity and optimism about reaching an enduring solution.

It is hard to tell if this is an attempt to create new momentum, or if he is utterly deluded about the real prospects of mediating peace. It is tempting to suggest that it is a bit of both. His decision to visit Israel later this month, which will include meeting with the Palestinian leadership, is bound to raise the bar of expectations, even among a majority in both nations who have grown extremely skeptical about US efforts to broker peace between them.

An insight into the psyche of the Trump administration and its perceptions of international affairs, especially in trying to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, was given during the White House daily press briefing following the Trump-Abbas meeting.

A journalist asked Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, why Trump’s optimism should be taken more seriously than that expressed by at least four presidents before him. Spicer’s reply was revealing: “I think the man is different.” Trump is very different from his predecessors, but this is surely not enough. Increasing the stakes when the situation is extremely fragile has its own risks.

Spicer, not known for subtlety, carried on claiming that Trump’s interpersonal skills position him better than his predecessors to advance US foreign policy. This is part of a concerted effort to portray Trump as someone who develops personal bonds with other leaders that will work magic in advancing US global interests.

A journalist asked Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, why President Trump’s optimism about Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolution should be taken more seriously than that expressed by at least four presidents before him. Spicer’s reply was revealing: “I think the man is different.” 

Yossi Mekelberg 

His decision to visit Israel and embroil himself in the murky water of peace talks derives from his administration’s belief that due to his efforts, Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s desire for peace has increased. If this is not detached enough from reality, Trump and his advisers take at face value the flattery, first by Netanyahu during his visit to the White House three months ago, and even more so by Abbas last week.

Both felt the need to repeat Trump’s mantra and refer to his great negotiating skills. Most likely, both Netanyahu and Abbas would have preferred not to be included in his first presidential trip abroad. What Spicer sees as their desire for peace most likely has more to do with not upsetting an unpredictable president of the world’s most powerful country, and that both rely on US support.

The multi-layered informal alliance between the US and Israel is well documented, but less known is that America’s direct and indirect financial support of the Palestinian Authority (PA) exceeds half a billion dollars a year. The PA is dependent on Israel and the US, and it cannot risk its financial lifeline.

Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s visits to Washington were more a scouting mission to assess what could be expected of the new president. They were also aimed at ensuring the Trump administration will not take any measures that would increase tensions and potentially lead to the outbreak of widespread violence.

It is a very different story for both of them if he tries to push for a deal without setting a viable process, or ignoring the complexities of the core disputed issues such as borders, Jerusalem, refugees, settlements and security arrangements. Their fear is that his determination will surpass his aptitude.

So a visit by Trump, considering his capacity for unguarded statements, carries with it a real danger of inflaming a situation that is already explosive. His meetings with Israeli and Palestinian protagonists on their own turf can be successful only if he sends both sides a clear message of genuine US interest in a solution for which he is ready to mobilize American resources to serve as an honest broker.

For that, he will have to hold the negotiating sides accountable if either or both of them impede a just and realistic solution. If the going gets tough, will Trump use his great negotiating skills or walk away?

 

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.