US President Donald Trump’s effort to reignite the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has created a contest for influence between two Jewish billionaires with close ties to the president and opposing worldviews, The New York Times reported.
Ronald S. Lauder, a long-time friend of the president, is said to be pushing Trump to advance a new peace initiative while tightening relations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Lauder hosted a dinner for Abbas at his Washington, DC home on Tuesday — the night before the Palestinian leader was warmly received by the president at the White House.
On the other end of the spectrum is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who was a top donor for Trump during his presidential campaign and is known for his close ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Adelson is reportedly worried by those voices urging Trump to adopt a more measured approach to the Middle East conflict — rather than the staunchly pro-Israel position he ran on during the campaign.
The Times noted that conservatives uncomfortable with Trump’s overtures to the Palestinian leadership still feel that his approach is a considerable improvement over former president Barack Obama.
Still, the battle for the president’s ear is raging quietly behind the scenes.
Lauder is reportedly in close contact with Trump’s Mideast peace envoy Jason Greenblatt — who has met with both Abbas and Netanyahu, as well as Arab leaders and other regional officials with influence on the peace process. Hardliners are said to be worried that Greenblatt too could become too sympathetic to the Arab position.
Adelson, meanwhile, is said to be incensed by Trump’s failure so far to follow through on his promise to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and has not donated to any pro-Trump groups since the inauguration.
Trump has not yet ruled out the possibility that the embassy move may still happen; he must decide by June whether to renew the longstanding presidential waiver of Congress’s 1995 decision to relocate the embassy.
Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is said to represent Adelson’s interests in the president’s inner circle, and is himself fighting to prevent Lauder’s enthusiasm for bold action from infecting the president.
Questioned by the Times, an associate of Lauder denied he was trying to push an alliance with Abbas, but said he was an optimist.
Meanwhile, hardliners opposed to a new peace push were proudly pessimistic — saying any keenness by the administration to make progress in the peace process would soon be snuffed out by the realities of regional politics.
“The administration is likely to discover what its predecessors learned: that there is no deal to be had right now because the parties have unbridgeable positions on most of the issues,” Republican strategist Noah Pollak told the Times.
He expressed hope that “the process of the administration proving to itself that no deal is possible will be quick and undramatic.”
Trump will make a one-day visit to Israel on May 22 along with his wife, First Lady Melania Trump, and his senior advisers, daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner. He will stop first in Saudi Arabia, where he has said he will meet leaders from the Muslim world and intends to work with them on fighting terrorism.
Trump has pledged to work for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and there has been speculation that he will seek to convene a Middle East summit soon after this month’s trip. Israel’s Channel 2 said Friday that the administration has also expressed interest in a possible Israel-Jordan-Saudi Arabia train route, and in pushing a much-discussed Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project.
During the Israel leg of his trip, Trump will meet with Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin as well as Abbas. The US president is not expected in Ramallah but may visit Bethlehem.
When Abbas visited the White House this week, Trump expressed optimism in his ability to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and praised Abbas for speaking out against Islamic State terrorism. Abbas said in his remarks that young Palestinians are being educated toward peace, a claim that was derided as untrue by Netanyahu.
“We will get it done,” Trump promised of a peace accord. “We will be working so hard to get it done. It’s been a long time, but we will be working diligently, and I think there’s a very, very good chance,” Trump said during a joint press conference with Abbas.
The president, who has referred to a Mideast peace agreement as “the ultimate deal,” said he would be willing to play whatever role was needed to strike the coveted accord.