Bereft of meat, Trump declarations leave Israel with much to chew on
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Bereft of meat, Trump declarations leave Israel with much to chew on

Heavy on symbolic gestures, short on substance, US president’s baffling first day in Jewish state deepens mystery of how he’ll achieve his stated goal of the ‘ultimate deal’

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

US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)

The first day of US President Donald Trump’s first-ever visit to Israel was full of grand gestures, but it yielded very few clues as to how the leader of the free world intends to go ahead and turn his vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace into reality.

It was moving to see Trump touching the stones of the Western Wall, becoming the first serving American president to visit the Jewish holy site. It was amusing to see Likud troublemaker MK Oren Hazan snatch a selfie with Trump, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s best efforts to prevent it. But the leaders’ public statements provided few new insights. If anything, they raised more questions.

Trump repeatedly denounced Iran and the nuclear deal that the previous administration negotiated with the regime, but did not say whether he will try to unravel the agreement. He said he never mentioned the word “Israel” in his conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but that in no way contradicts reports that he gave classified information on the Islamic State group that was collected by Israel intelligence agencies; in fact, it adds more weight to the notion.

Trump, who arrived in Israel on Monday after a weekend in Saudi Arabia, spoke a lot about the chances for Middle East peace, suggesting that the Sunni Arab world is ready to accept Israel. The idea of a regional alliance to take on Iran’s increasingly aggressive behavior has long been discussed. Netanyahu has for years been declaring that the Arab world no longer sees the Jewish state as its enemy and actually is engaged in clandestine security cooperation.

“I was deeply encouraged by my conversations with Muslim world leaders in Saudi Arabia, including King Salman, who I spoke to at great length,” Trump told President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence. “King Salman feels very strongly, and I can tell you would love to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City on May 22, 2017. (AFP /POOL /RONEN ZVULUN)
US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 22, 2017. (AFP /POOL /RONEN ZVULUN)

Later in the day, at a meeting with Netanyahu at the King David Hotel, Trump described the Arab world’s feeling toward Israel as “really very positive.” Leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and many other Arab states were very forthcoming about their desire for peace, he added. “I could see a much deeper path to friendship with Israel, and I think a lot of that’s spurred on whatever it takes, but a lot of it’s spurred on by what’s happening with Iran. So progress has been made.”

Netanyahu, too, spoke about the Arab world’s slow rapprochement to Israel, calling it “pregnant with possibility,” and arguing, as he has done for years, that this larger Arab-Israeli detente “will help reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians.”

During joint statements delivered later at his residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street, Netanyahu said he has “real hope for change” for the “first time in my lifetime.”

It is true that certain Arab states and Israel were never closer. But full normalization, Arab leaders continue to stress, can only follow the conclusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US President Donald Trump speak upon the latter's arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport on May 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US President Donald Trump speak upon the latter’s arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport on May 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

“No injustice has spread more bitter fruit than the absence of a Palestinian state,” Jordan’s King Abdullah told Trump on Sunday at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh. “This is the core issue for our region, and it has driven radicalism and instability beyond our region and into the Muslim world.” The only way forward is a “just and comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian cause, based on the two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative,” he stressed.

Netanyahu and Trump complimented and thanked each other for their respective willingness to seek peace. But neither gave any public indication of how exactly they were going about achieving any progress on that front. Trump and Netanyahu both avoided endorsing Palestinian statehood or the idea of “two states for two peoples” (though, in contrast to the February 14 White House press conference, Trump did not say he would be also be fine with a one-state solution).

“I thank the prime minister for his commitment to pursuing the peace process,” Trump said. “He’s working very hard at it. It’s not easy. I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all, but I have a feeling that we’re going to get there eventually, I hope.”

On Sunday, the Israel cabinet approved a series of steps — call them goodwill gestures — geared at improving the daily lives of Palestinians and boosting the economy in the West Bank. Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office explained that the administration had asked for something Trump can show to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when they meet Tuesday morning in Bethlehem.

US President Donald Trump, center, talks to reporters before a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem May 22, 2017. (AP/Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump, center, talks to reporters before a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem May 22, 2017. (AP/Evan Vucci)

The White House welcomed Jerusalem’s move, saying in a statement that the “Trump Administration will continue working closely with Palestinian and Israeli business leaders to identify additional ways to grow the Palestinian economy.”

Abbas probably appreciates the gesture, but there can be no illusion that expanding operational hours at the Allenby Bridge, establishing a new industrial zone near Tarkumiya and connecting Jericho to a sewage treatment plant will lead to a breakthrough in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian deadlock.

On Tuesday, Trump will meet Abbas for a second time in less than a month, before he returns to Jerusalem to deliver a speech at the Israel Museum. Judging by Trump’s public statements so far — which were full of warm words for Israel, but bereft of political or diplomatic meat — it seems unlikely that his speech will contain any bombshells. He is unlikely to announce a move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem or formally recognize the city as Israel’s capital.

Trump’s main goal in this very ceremonial visit is not to make grand declarations or establish new policies. Rather, he wants to show Israelis and Palestinians that he’s serious about making peace, and to listen to what they are willing to do to make it happen.

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