According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, President Donald Trump “pressured” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to renew peace negotiations during his trips to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Tillerson didn’t disclose what kind of pressure it was, and Trump never publicly disclosed his vision for Middle East peace.
In fact, Trump didn’t say a whole heck of a lot in his public remarks. For example, he never mentioned the two-state solution; he said nothing about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; he never mentioned Syria, and its genocidal civil war just on the other side of Israel’s border; and when he was in Saudi Arabia, he never mentioned “freedom,” “democracy” or “human rights,” or the Saudis’ role in funding the Islamist terrorism that is such a recurring theme in Trump’s stump speeches. While we enjoyed the photo ops and public embraces, we wonder what happened to the man who was so vocal and committed on each of these issues before he left on his trip.
Criticism of the lack of substance in Trump’s Middle East visits abounds, even as the White House seems to have heaved a sigh of relief that nothing went “wrong.” According to some, Trump’s visits to Bethlehem, Yad Vashem and the Western Wall were nothing more than a series of symbolic gestures. That may be so. But perhaps there was something more. According to Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel : “To the Israelis, he seems to be bringing tantalizing offers of normalization from the Saudis — overflights, communications links and trade offices — while to the Palestinians, he may represent their last chance to achieve statehood before Abbas leaves the scene.”
Some suspect that to get Israel accepted into the Saudi-led Sunni alliance against Iran and ISIS, Trump will need Israel to deliver a Palestinian state. And Abbas will need to deliver the Palestinians. Indeed, some think that is “the deal” to which Trump aspires. Perhaps. But, at this point, no one is talking publicly about those points.
What we do know is that Trump is a Middle East neophyte. He is a deal maker with little experience in the byzantine Middle Eastern bazaar. What he may learn is that there is a good reason why the “ultimate deal” has never been closed in the Middle East. As Shapiro wrote: “Trump needs to be prepared for well-practiced Israeli and Palestinian negotiating tactics of delay, of dragging the mediator in the details, and of preparing not for success but for failure and ensuring they are well-positioned for the blame game to follow. But he needs to make the costs of disappointing him high.”
We accept the fact that Trump knows how to negotiate. And we have seen how when he puts his personal prestige on the line, he is relentless in the pursuit of his goals. We would just like to understand what those goals are.