During his February press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump hinted at his desire to reach not only an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but a much larger deal that would end decades of Arab hostility against Jewish settlement in the Holy Land.
“I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand,” Trump said.
On Sunday, addressing a major gathering of Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh, Trump missed out on a historic opportunity to make headway toward that goal.
In his lengthy speech, there were only three fleeting references to Israel: “After concluding my visit in Riyadh, I will travel to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and then to the Vatican – visiting many of the holiest places in the three Abrahamic faiths,” he said. “If these three faiths can join together in cooperation, then peace in this world is possible — including peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Later on, he lambasted Iran for “vowing the destruction of Israel.”
And that was it.
Trump did not declare America’s unwavering support for Israel. He did not urge the Arab world to finally come to terms with Israel’s existence. Although his forceful plea for religious tolerance listed Jews as innocent victims of terrorism, he chose not to call on the gathered dignitaries to accept the Jewish people’s right to a homeland of their own.
He did not even include Israel in a list of countries in the Middle East fighting terror.
In this choice, he starkly differed from his predecessor. Barack Obama, in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, mentioned Israel 23 times. Indeed, he called it the “second major source of tension” that Americans and Arabs need to discuss. While Obama made an effort to appear balanced and fair to all sides, he left no doubt about American support for the Jewish state and even called on the Arab world to consider adapting some of his views.
“Threatening Israel with destruction — or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews — is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve,” Obama declared.
While many in Israel criticized his juxtaposition of Israel’s creation with the Holocaust — a mistake he later acknowledged and worked hard to rectify by stressing the Jewish people’s ancient connection to the land — Obama made plain that the American people’s alliance with Israel was unbreakable.
Furthermore, Obama urged the Arab states to do more to bring about a peace deal, including by recognizing Israel.
The Arab Peace Initiative was a good first step but not enough, he said. “The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state; to recognize Israel’s legitimacy; and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.”
Trump, speaking at the birthplace of the Arab Peace Initiative, said none of that. Instead, his address focused on urging the Muslim world to confront terror and isolate Iran.
Obama also clearly stated that the “Palestinians must abandon violence.” Terror is not only wrong, it will lead to nothing, he said. “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”
To be sure, Obama’s speech also took Israelis to task for their “occupation” of Palestinian lands and the big and small “daily humiliations” of Palestinian people. He condemned Israeli settlements as illegitimate and called for their cessation.
“So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” Obama declared. “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
Obama skipped Israel during his 2009 visit to the Middle East, another move that contributed to Israelis’ suspicions over his true feelings toward the Jewish state, and one he later regretted.
Trump’s supporters might point to the fact that he will arrive in Israel on Monday, and will likely make up for ignoring Israel in Riyadh with many friendly statements and speeches in Jerusalem.
But if Trump truly wanted to send a message to the Arab world about Israeli-Palestinian peace, about Israel’s right to exist, the time to do it was Sunday, in Saudi Arabia, in front of leaders who still refuse to recognize the Jewish state.
Telling Israelis that the state they live in is legitimate and enjoys America’s support is a nice thing, but it likely won’t do anything to advance peace.
In the current regional climate, in which most Sunni Arab states recognize that Iran — not Israel — is their enemy, and continue to hint at their readiness to increase their engagement with Jerusalem, though, Trump could have taken a large step toward the comprehensive peace deal he so eagerly seeks.
Instead, his speech enters the tragically long list of missed opportunities that have marked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.