WASHINGTON — With US President Donald Trump making his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia and then Israel later this month, he is adopting a similar and yet decidedly different approach than his predecessor.
“It’s ironic, in one sense,” Bruce Riedel, director of the intelligence project at the Brookings Institution, told The Times of Israel on Thursday, soon after the president announced the itinerary for the trip. “He’s now following in the footsteps of Barack Obama, who also made Saudi Arabia his first stop in the Middle East.”
In spring 2009, Obama visited Riyadh and then travelled to Cairo to deliver a major address in which he sought to improve US relations with the Muslim world. The critical difference between that trip and this one, however, is that Trump isn’t skipping Israel.
While rumors of a Trump Israel visit began circulating last week, the specifics and the order of his destinations — formally announced on the day after his White House talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — offer indications of the peacemaking approach he has been developing in his talks with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas in these nascent weeks of his presidency.
“We’ve known that he was likely to be going to Israel and Saudi Arabia for several weeks now,” said Simon Henderson, a specialist on Saudi politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “What’s fascinating, though, is that Saudi Arabia is the number one stop, which therefore gives it a quasi, inadvertent, almost historic significance.”
Trump has been courting the Saudis rigorously since taking office. Many of his top cabinet members — including Secretary of Defense James Mattis — have met with Saudi officials, and Trump himself met with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in March.
The logic of stopping in Riyadh before Jerusalem, several Middle East experts told The Times of Israel on Thursday, is three-fold: suggesting an attempt to construct an anti-Iranian coalition, to build partnerships in the Muslim world against terrorism, and to foster the regional conditions that could enable a restart of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
By making Israel a key part of his initial trip, meanwhile, he is showing very clearly that he will be different than Obama — who remains unpopular with the Saudis and Israelis alike, following his landmark nuclear accord with Iran, and in Israel, too, for his final days refusal to veto an anti-settlement resolution at the UN Security Council.
Trump plainly wants “to draw a sharp contrast between this administration and its predecessor,” Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator under presidents from both parties.
“This sharpens the notion of the previous president going to Cairo and giving a big transformative speech and not stopping in Israel, which clearly set the stage, warranted or not, for a lot of the broken crockery that seemed to characterize US-Israeli relations,” he added.
Strikingly, Trump’s first foreign foray will also take him to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis, meaning he’ll be visiting the spiritual centers of Islam, Judaism and Catholicism.
Riedel believes the meetings with the Saudi delegation will likely be 90 percent focused on the Iranian threat. But the Saudis, Riedel said, will also likely use their time with Trump to stress the importance, from their perspective, of not moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The timing of Trump’s visit to Israel — set for May 22-23, just before Jerusalem Day, when Israel will mark 50 years since the reunification of its capital — has already elicited speculation that he may use the occasion to announce the embassy’s relocation.
Vice President Mike Pence repeated earlier this week that the idea was still under consideration, even though it is hard to square with the warm approach Trump showed in hosting Abbas on Wednesday.
For the Palestinian Authority president, who restated when speaking alongside Trump that he seeks East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, an announcement by Trump in Israel that the US embassy is moving would be regarded, to put it mildly, as an act of bad faith.
The White House also indicated Thursday that Trump would meet Abbas for the second time this month during the upcoming trip. Even this, however, would not sweeten the bitter pill of an embassy move.
In Saudi Arabia, Trump will also be seeking something concrete he can take to Netanyahu, perhaps something he can use to extract a concession from Israel to move along the peace process, according to Henderson.
Trump is “probably going to say, ‘I’m off to Israel next, what do you want me to tell them?” Henderson said.
“If it’s a platitude of, ‘Tell them we’ll recognize them if they go back to the 1967 borders,’ I would hope the president turns around and says, ‘I know that’s your basic line. Give me something more concrete. I’m trying to make a breakthrough here,'” Henderson said.
“That will put them on the spot,” he added. “Because they, of course, don’t want to recognize Israel but may find themselves getting pushed in that direction.”
Israelis have responded to the formal confirmation of the trip with optimism. Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren said Trump’s announcement of plans to meet with world Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia was “excellent” news.
“It dovetails with Israel’s interests,” Oren told The Times of Israel. “It’s in our interest to have an American president who’s respected throughout the Arab world and is committed to harnessing the Arab world to make peace between us and the Palestinians.”
While some Muslims consider Trump Islamophobic, his policies target not all Muslims but rather Islamic extremism, said Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US.
Trump was plainly trying to emphasize this point on Thursday, by announcing that he would begin his trip “with a truly historic gathering in Saudi Arabia with leaders from all across the Muslim world” and “begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries.”
The Kulanu politician also welcomed Trump’s expected meeting with Abbas, which seems set for Bethlehem.
“We welcome any effort by the president to return the Palestinians to the negotiating table without preconditions, as well as to mobilize the Arab world to support that process,” Oren said. “We have long waited for President Abbas to return to the negotiating table; he hasn’t. The goal remains the same: mutual recognition and security.”
But Miller is not convinced Israelis will remain happy with the Trump approach to peacemaking, despite the nature of this trip reflecting the president’s desire to embrace the so-called outside-in approach, which Netanyahu himself has been advocating for years.
“They’ll like it until Trump asks them to do something,” Miller said.
The former State Department official said that pursuing that framework would likely have to mean the upcoming meetings were intended to lay the groundwork for another summit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which key demands were made of the parties.
“The outside-in approach would ultimately have to morph into some concrete meeting, a Madrid 2-like formula, where you obviously would have Israel engaging with key Arab ministers and heads of state,” Miller said. “What the Israelis would have to pay for that is another matter.”