In Bethlehem, Trump seems to reject Netanyahu’s outside-in approach
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Analysis

In Bethlehem, Trump seems to reject Netanyahu’s outside-in approach

US president stops short of endorsing Palestinian statehood, but stresses that if Israelis, Palestinians can make peace, 'it will begin' a process leading to regional peace -- not the other way around

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photograph during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)
US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photograph during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday appeared to reject Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision of a wider Arab-Israeli detente that will eventually lead to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, instead stating that the sequence of peacemaking would have to be the other way around.

Speaking alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, the president reaffirmed his commitment to brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and lauded both leaders for their declared willingness to go along with his plan.

But then Trump set out a formula from which Netanyahu is unlikely to derive much pleasure.

“I am truly hopeful that America can help Israel and the Palestinians forge peace and bring new hope to the region and its people,” Trump said, reading from prepared remarks. “I also firmly believe that if Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, it will begin a process of peace all throughout the Middle East.”

For years, Netanyahu has argued that bilateral talks between Ramallah and Jerusalem are unlikely to yield a final-status peace deal. Instead, he insists, the Sunni Arab world, which sees in Israel a vital ally against their common foe Iran, will eventually convince the Palestinians to make the concessions necessary for a peace agreement.

The prime minister spoke about his so-called outside-in approach Monday night at a meeting with Trump in Jerusalem.

“I also look forward to working closely with you to advance peace in our region, because you have noted so succinctly that common dangers are turning former enemies into partners. And that’s where we see something new and potentially something very promising.” Netanyahu said. “The Arab leaders who you met yesterday could help change the atmosphere and they could help create the conditions for a realistic peace,” he continued, referring to the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, which Trump attended.

It is true that Trump believes in a grand bargain that would lead to peace between Israel and the larger Arab world, but he apparently differs with Netanyahu on the direction: inside-out versus outside-in.

Netanyahu hopes that Trump can help formalize Israel’s clandestine cooperation with the Gulf states before a peace deal with the Palestinians is reached. But in Bethlehem on Tuesday, Trump indicated that he sees the direction reversed — or, rather, restored to the time-honored formula first laid down in the 2002 Saudi peace initiative: First, Israelis and Palestinians need to sign a peace treaty. Then, the entire Arab and Muslim world will normalize relations with Israel.

Trump has yet to formally endorse the two-state solution. So far, he has not uttered the words “Palestinian state” in any of his appearances since he landed at Ben Gurion on Monday. He also subtly hinted on Tuesday at his disapproval of the Palestinians’ failure to effectively fight incitement to violence, including their payments to terrorists and terrorists’ families, when he said, “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded and even rewarded. We must be resolute in condemning such acts in a single unified voice.”

Trump has also not said anything about the Arab Peace Initiative. But his repeated references to his meetings in Riyadh with King Salman — even in Israel and the Palestinian territories, he has been heaping more praise on the Saudi monarch than on his hosts — suggest that he was deeply impressed by the man.

“King Salman of Saudi Arabia could not have been kinder, and I will tell you: He’s a very wise, wise man,” he said Tuesday in Bethlehem.

US President Donald Trump (C-L) and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C-R) arrive for the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)
US President Donald Trump (C-L) and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (C-R) arrive for the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)

Trump described Sunday’s summit in Riyadh as “a deeply productive meeting” in which he witnessed “a lot of love.”

Likewise, on Monday, at a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, Trump stressed that he was “deeply encouraged” by his conversations with Muslim leaders there. “King Salman feels very strongly, and I can tell you would love to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

But what Trump heard at the Riyadh summit, which was attended by Abbas, was a total, unanimous, unambiguous endorsement of the Arab Peace Initiative. It is highly unlikely that any of the leaders he met there gave him any indication that they’re subscribing to Netanyahu’s outside-in approach.

That is not to say that Trump will try to force Israel to accept the terms of Arab Peace Initiative, some of which are unacceptable to the Israeli government. But on Tuesday he made plain that he believes Israeli-Palestinian peace “will begin a process of peace all throughout the Middle East,” and not, as Netanyahu asserts, culminate that process.

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