For decades, we’ve watched American administrations wrestle with the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, gradually formulating and recalibrating their positions — seeking to make progress for Israel’s sake, for the Palestinians’ sake, seeking to defang a pretext for terrorism, seeking the near-impossible deal.
And when US President Donald J. Trump came to the Middle East this week — to Riyadh, Jerusalem and Bethlehem — the Arab and Israeli leaders he met, and the pundits who watched him, subjected his every utterance to the spectacularly nuanced scrutiny they applied to all those other administrations over the years. Where is the administration headed? What to make of what he said, of what he didn’t say?
But Trump is no sophisticate where matters of Middle East political maneuvering are concerned. And neither has he surrounded himself with Middle East sophisticates. The former administration experts on our region, and the best brains the US think tanks can produce — thus far, at least, almost none of them has been drawn into the Trump administration brain trust.
For now, therefore, it’s worth internalizing that where President Trump and the Middle East peace process are concerned, there is no strategy for the pundits to try to figure out. It’s not even a case of “What you see is what you get” — because there’s no telling what we may get. It is, rather: What you see is what there is. Not carefully, warily calculated formulations, hinting at the subtle agenda beneath. But Trump front and center. Trump from the heart. Trump from the gut.
And what you see is a president who believes in his deal-making skills, and wants to think he can apply them to regional politics.
What you see is a president who is wary of Muslims, but is now, rhetorically at least, distinguishing between the religion and its adherents, on the one hand, and the political manipulation of the religion by evil people, on the other — hence his talk in Riyadh on Sunday of “Islamist extremism” and “Islamist terror.” Not Islamic extremism; not Islamic terror.
What you see is a president instinctively supportive of Israel — of a strong nation, with a glorious history, that knows how to look after itself. You saw it in his history-making “private visit” to the Israeli-liberated, holiest place for Jewish prayer — kippah on head, respectful, empathetic. It is an unsophisticated love — a birthright Israel-style love — that the Palestinians are doing their best to cloud. (After unsophisticated love for Israel, there often follows dismay at the realization that not everything is quite as clear-cut as one had thought. The more you know, the more complicated it can get; the challenge for Israel and its supporters will become more acute if Trump engages more deeply, to see him maintain his Zionist sensibilities amid the complex narrative of our reality here.)
What you see is a president who, to hear his remarks about Jerusalem, would for sure have changed the plaque on the West Jerusalem consulate to say “Embassy,” and may yet do so, but who in pledging to make that change while on the campaign trail knew little about the potential implications and ramifications.
What you see is a president who is well-disposed toward Jews. They’re part of his family. Several hold key administration positions. They’re his lawyers. They’re his former lawyers now filling key posts like special envoy and ambassador to Israel.
What you see is a president who thinks America under Obama exuded weakness in the Middle East and was an unreliable ally of Israel, and intends to change all that.
What you see is a president deeply hostile to the regime in Iran, who has given senior positions to ex-military figures who share and outdo him in that hostility, and who heard from King Salman and others in Riyadh how widely feared Iran is, and how central to this region’s problems and to threats beyond this region.
What you see is a president who, on this trip, was keenly aware of Evangelical support for Israel, and who wanted to ensure that his visit would play well back home for the Republican party.
What you see is a president who has now spent considerable time with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has doubtless been presented for the first time with passionate advocacy for the Palestinian cause, and who chose only to implicitly confront Abbas in public with the imperative to stop inciting terrorism and funding terrorists and their families, but who knows that the Republican Party is itching to financially punish the Palestinian Authority if the issue is not resolved.
What you see is a president who may get sicker of the whole Israeli-Palestinian quagmire the deeper he gets drawn into it. Who may banish Abbas from his White House like George W. Bush banished Yasser Arafat. Or not. Who may become impatient when Benjamin Netanyahu tells him that, no, sorry Donald, there are concessions we simply cannot and will not make. Or not.
What you see is a president who really, truly, doesn’t care if there’s a one-state or a two-state solution because, at least until this trip, he had little sense of the significance of either, and may not have even now.
What you see is a president who wants to proclaim that he brokered the impossible deal. But who, embattled at home, will be constrained and preoccupied. And who plainly has no instant solution, because nobody does. (We need the long-haul approach, as I stressed in this piece on the eve of his visit.)
What you see is a president, thus far, who is doggedly attached to the charmingly optimistic, thoroughly well-intentioned and dangerously false notion he set out when hosting Abbas at the White House early this month, that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
In his Israel Museum speech, the last event of his whirlwind Middle East trip, he insisted, in a departure from his prepared text, that Abbas and the Palestinians are “ready to reach for peace.” Speaking slowly, as though addressing small children, he continued, “I know you’ve heard it before. I am telling you. That’s what I do. They are ready to reach for peace.” And, he went on, still extemporizing, after his meeting with “my very good friend, Benjamin, I can tell you also, that he is reaching for peace. He wants peace.”
To which one can only say two things:
One: Would that it were all so simple.
Two: Nobody, but nobody, knows quite what will happen when — or if — President Trump allows himself to recognize that it is not.