For Trump, Middle East peacemaking is all about give and take

For Trump, Middle East peacemaking is all about give and take

Taking Jerusalem off the table, putting financial aid on it, the president evidently views the path to the ultimate deal as a series of transactions

Raphael Ahren

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

US President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2018 (AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm)
US President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2018 (AFP Photo/Nicholas Kamm)

US President Donald Trump probably doesn’t know that the Hebrew term for negotiations — massa u’matan — literally means “give and take,” but the remarks he made Thursday ahead of a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos showed that this is exactly how he views the path to the ultimate deal. It’s all about the giving and the taking.

To the Palestinians, he said: If you want to get something (financial aid), you have to give something (respect, and a readiness to negotiate).

To the Israelis, he said: You already got something (US recognition of Jerusalem as your capital), so soon you will have to give something in return (though nobody knows what).

When Trump talks about peacemaking, he is evidently not overly concerned with having to navigate diametrically opposed historical narratives. He’s not particularly focused on an ancient people that yearned for its ancestral homeland or a dispossessed people under occupation. Rather, he appears to view the Middle East conflict more as a real estate dispute that a savvy mediator can solve by bringing the two sides to the negotiating table and hammering out a deal.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, eastern Switzerland, on January 25, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

As much as Trump seems in lockstep with Netanyahu when it comes to policies, furthermore, the two perceive the root causes of Israeli-Palestinian conflict from very different perspectives.

For the Israeli premier, it centers around the Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, or rather the lack thereof. Netanyahu believes that the Palestinians do not accept Jewish sovereignty anywhere in this holy land, and as long as that doesn’t change genuine peace is impossible.

Trump’s remarks in Davos were bereft of historical, legal or religious themes. It was not about ideology; it’s about reciprocity.

Trump said he took Jerusalem off the table, by declaring the city Israel’s capital, but added that “Israel will pay for that.” He also put something “on the table” — American financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, which will be withheld unless they agree to negotiate with Israel under his tutelage.

Indeed, Trump on Thursday indicated that he believes his conception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as solvable via financial and diplomatic transactions is the one innovation that could help his peace initiative succeed where all others failed.

“If you look back at the various peace proposals, and they are endless, and I spoke to some of the people involved, and I said, ‘Did you ever talk about the vast amounts of funds, money that we give to the Palestinians. We give, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars, and they said, ‘we never talk about it.’ Well, we do talk about it,” Trump said.

The money is on the table, Trump repeated several times. “You know, the money was never on the table, I tell you up front. We give them [the Palestinians] tremendous amounts, hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That money is on the table. Because why should we do that as a country if they’re doing nothing for us?”

Saeb Erekat (Amir Levy/Flash90)

The Palestinians wasted no time in, once again, denouncing the president, particularly his puzzling statement about having removed Jerusalem — what Trump called “the hardest subject” — from the peace process equation.

“Those who say that Jerusalem is off the table are saying that peace is off the table,” senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declared, minutes after Trump concluded his remarks.

Erekat also rebuffed Trump’s threat to cut off funding for the PA. “President Trump could buy many things with his money, but he won’t be able to buy the dignity of our nation,” he said.

Netanyahu, by contrast, speaking to Israel reporters after his 40-minute private meeting with the president, said it had been “excellent.” As well he would, given that Trump had made it clear in their public remarks that he believes the Israelis are ready for peace while he’s not so sure about the Palestinians.

So, to stick with the financial framework, does all this add up to an overwhelming net gain for Israel? Well, the US president is clearly invested in Netanyahu right now, but the prime minister will want to keep in mind that the businessman-president doesn’t like it when a deal he hopes to cut goes south.

US President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, on Dec. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

While Trump said Thursday that, “We took Jerusalem off the table, so we don’t have to talk about it anymore,” his original December 6 formal declaration made plain that the borders of that Israeli sovereignty would have to be negotiated. Indeed, his own deputy stressed this week that not all of Jerusalem is Israel’s to keep: Addressing the Knesset Monday — in carefully scripted remarks, as opposed to Trump’s freewheeling comments Thursday — Vice President Mike Pence stressed that the US is “not taking a position on any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders.”

As Trump made plain Thursday, there are no free lunches. “You won one point,” he told Netanyahu, referring to the American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, “and you’ll give up some points later in the negotiation, if it ever takes place.”

For the time being, a resumption of US-sponsored peace talks seem very unlikely. If the stalemate continues, Israel will have pocketed the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, however ill-defined it may be.

But if the administration does somehow manage to get negotiations going, Trump is going to demand some payback from Israel, and nobody knows what kind of concessions he will ask for.

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