Omitting Mideast peace from speech, Trump opts again for the unorthodox

Omitting Mideast peace from speech, Trump opts again for the unorthodox

US leaders usually mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; this year, the president was mum on what is one of his self-declared major foreign policy objectives

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

President Donald Trump speaks to the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks to the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

NEW YORK — True to form, Donald Trump’s maiden address to the UN General Assembly was unusual.

It is not common, after all, for an American president to use this annual speech to assert he’s willing to “totally destroy” another country (North Korea). It is not common for him to deride another world leader, however nefarious he or she may be, with an allusion to Elton John (North Korea’s President Kim Jong-Un, or “Rocket man” in Trump’s words). And it is not common, although not unprecedented, to neglect to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump has made resolving the decades-long dispute one of the “highest priorities” of his presidency, as White House officials stressed in recent days. And although they told The Times of Israel that the administration would put the issue on the back burner this week, its exclusion from Trump’s UN speech was glaring.

It wouldn’t have been notable had Trump not elevated resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a high spot on his foreign policy agenda himself — a miscue according to some.

“Even if you spent all your time on it, you wouldn’t solve it,” insisted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview last year. “This is not an issue that is ripe for a resolution.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Donald Trump shake hands prior to their meeting at the Palace Hotel in New York City ahead of the United Nations General Assembly on September 18, 2017.(AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

But more importantly, added Haass, a former special adviser to President George W. Bush, there are other, much more serious issues in the world that demand more of the president’s attention.

In the Middle East alone, more pressing concerns include Iran’s malign regional activities and ongoing quest to obtain a nuclear weapon, the situation in Syria, the unraveling of Arab states and the Islamic State terror group.

And that doesn’t include other global crises, such as escalating provocations from North Korea. Trump, for his part, did dedicate significant portions of his address to the North Korean and Iranian challenges.

But given the fact he is ostensibly investing a lot of capital on the Israeli-Palestinian question, its total omission from his 40 minutes on stage Tuesday was curious, and a break from his predecessors.

Historically, US presidents have generally granted at least some space to the struggle for peace, even in the midst of more urgent problems.

George W. Bush, in his first UN speech, which came shortly after the September 11 attacks, dedicated four sentences to the issue. “The American government … stands by its commitment to a just peace in the Middle East,” he said.

“We are working toward the day when two states — Israel and Palestine — live peacefully together within secure and recognized borders as called for by the Security Council resolutions. We will do all in our power to bring both parties back into negotiations. But peace will only come when all have sworn off forever incitement, violence and terror.”

US president Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 20, 2016 in New York City (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

And last year, while Barack Obama decidedly lessened his focus on the conflict compared to years prior, he did still dedicate 37 words to it. In those remarks, he called on Palestinians to “reject incitement and recognize the legitimacy of Israel,” while imploring Israel to “recognize that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land.”

Even that sort of minimal attention has usually been the standard.

“Routinely, when presidents give speeches at UNGA, they at least mention this,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator in seven administrations, Democrat and Republican alike. “They usually don’t discuss it in great detail, though Obama did, at one point.”

Indeed, Obama addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all but one of his UNGA speeches, while Bush mentioned it in all but two.

Trump’s leaving the issue out of his speech won’t change much though, even if he is holding separate meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The international gathering has rarely been an occasion for any substantive action on peace efforts.

The last time it served as a forum for any Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy was in 2010, when Obama brought Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas together for a meeting. “UNGA is largely a forum for making a point, not a difference,” Miller said.

Under the current White House’s thinking, the talks that have started between a US delegation and, separately, Israelis and Palestinians, are best kept between the parties — without any intervention from the other quarters of the international community.

The privacy of those discussions, moreover, is seen as a way to build the trust needed to eventually make a breakthrough.

Trump’s special envoy for Mideast peace, Jason Greenblatt, said as much in a speech Monday at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee’s annual meeting.

“Instead of working to impose a solution from the outside, we are giving the parties space to make their own decisions about their future,” he said of the slow-simmering strategy.

“It is no secret that our approach to these discussions departs from some of the usual orthodoxy,” he continued, “for after years of well-meaning attempts to negotiate an end to this conflict, we have all learned some valuable lessons.”

After the last three US presidents have tried to broker a final-status accord, but ultimately came up short, it’s not counterintuitive that a new president who is intent on succeeding where the others have failed would want to try something different.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result” is how the oft-repeated and, at this point, tired adage goes.

By leaving out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from his speech Tuesday, Trump reaffirmed yet again that his “unorthodox” approach to striking the “ultimate deal” entails breaking from the customs of his predecessors.

And if he truly believes peace “can happen,” as he said on Monday, sitting next to the Israeli premier, he probably also thinks it will be a long, long time.

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