Overall, U.S. President Donald Trump has delivered. He will not have satisfied the delusional aspirations of Israel’s radical right but, despite some missteps before he arrived, highlighted by hostile and misleading press reports, the Trump visit was favorable for Israel and outlined parameters of what can be achieved with the Palestinians.
It was disappointing that he postponed transferring the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem but there is still hope that this will happen during his presidency. We appreciate that he is the first sitting American president to visit Jerusalem’s Old City and the Western Wall.
We would have preferred him to be more explicit about the extent of terrorism in Israel in his address to the Muslim world. But he more than compensated in his extraordinarily warm address at the Israel Museum.
There is also some concern that the substantial commercial and defense relationship with the Saudis ($380 billion in deals, including $110 billion in arms purchases) might impact Israel and will require steps to ensure that we maintain our qualitative military edge.
Trump did not try to force unreasonable or irresponsible concessions. A Palestinian state is not even on the horizon. Neither is there any indication of a return to former President Barack Obama’s policy of freezing all settlement construction.
Indeed, the president expressed friendship and support for Israel in a far more open and positive manner than any of his predecessors. In his address to the leaders of 55 Muslim-majority countries, he reversed Obama’s moral equivalence approach and described the conflict as being between the forces of decency on the one hand, and an evil death cult on the other. He urged the Arab and Muslim states to actively eradicate terrorism and extremism from within their ranks and places of worship. He specifically condemned Hamas and Hezbollah together with ISIS and al-Qaida. Notably, he explicitly called on Arab and Muslim leaders to combat anti-Semitism. No American president has ever spoken directly to the Arab world in such a blunt and forthright manner.
For the first time, the Saudis, backed by the Egyptians and Gulf states, appear to be promoting peace or at least easing the tension between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In his lengthy statement outlining the Saudi position prior to Trump’s address, King Salman only devoted one sentence to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but rather than condemning Israel, expressed the hope that peace will be achieved. This was a clear message as was the fact that Trump flew to Israel on the first ever direct flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.
Whereas in the past the Arab states were a major element fanning Palestinian anti-Israel hostility, it may well be that the tide has changed.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Saudis no longer demand that Israel freeze all settlement construction. Instead, they propose that Israel restrict construction outside the settlement blocs and provide additional humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza.
In return, the Saudis would inch closer to partial normalization and recognition by allowing Israeli aircraft to fly over their territory, set up direct telephone connection and even provide tourist visas for Israelis. While this was not officially confirmed, there were no denials, which tends to confirm the veracity of the report and suggests that the Saudis are willing to actively act as brokers by pressing the Palestinians to be more flexible.
To what extent this was the outcome of discussions with Trump’s representatives, or simply because the Saudis now recognize the value of Israel’s support against Iran’s efforts to achieve regional hegemony, is irrelevant. There have already been widespread rumors attesting to covert Saudi cooperation with Israel in relation to Iran and similarly with the Egyptians in the struggle against ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula.
Whereas Trump demanded that the Palestinians cease the incitement and bring an end to rewarding murderers and their families with lavish pensions and sanctifying them as heroes, he avoided suggesting that Israel cease settlement activity. But he undoubtedly pressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move forward with confidence-building measures such as improving the economic conditions and social development among Palestinians.
At this potentially historic turning point, Netanyahu must stand firm against the radicals in his coalition and impose a limited freeze beyond the settlement blocs. The majority of the nation would endorse such a policy and if it brings down the government and forces elections, the nation will support him.
We talk endlessly about the need for unity. At this crucial time, decision-making must reflect the views of the majority who are effectively the political centrists. No minority groups should be able to veto our national interest.
Yair Lapid and his party, Yesh Atid, also embrace this centrist view. They should either join the government or support it on this issue. Even the non-delusional elements in Labor should support this process.
Of course, this is only the beginning. Before we engage in negotiating details, let us see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas make some concessions. Let him recognize Israel as a Jewish state and abrogate the Palestinian refugee right of return. Then we can discuss borders and a demilitarized state. But in the meantime, we must demonstrate to the world and to Trump that we are reasonable and respond positively toward genuine Arab gestures.
Despite all these efforts, the likelihood is that the duplicitous Abbas is unwilling or unable to change. We should have no illusions. He is unlikely to make genuine efforts to stem incitement or cease awarding lavish pensions to murderers and their families. Should that be the case, most of the world, especially the Europeans, will still automatically blame Israel for failure to advance the peace negotiations.
Trump’s determination will then be put to test. If, to appease the Saudis, he was to continue to make believe that Abbas is a moderate peace partner and extend the fake “peace process negotiations” we have endured under Obama, we would justly feel betrayed.
However, if the Trump administration performs as an honest broker and recognizes Israel’s efforts and genuine desire for peace, it will conclude that in the absence of a Palestinian negotiating partner, all we can achieve is an improvement in Palestinian quality of life under their own autonomy while we maintain our security. At the same time, as has been hinted by Trump, he may then look more seriously at alternative solutions in cooperation with Egypt and Jordan and backed by the moderate Arab States, which do not involve a two state solution. It is no coincidence that Trump failed to explicitly refer to a Palestinian State while visiting the region. It is this veiled threat that Trump is hoping will entice the Palestinian leadership to conduct bona fide negotiations for the first time.
We are today in an exceedingly strong position. Israel has never been so powerful militarily, economically and socially.
Israel has never had such widespread international recognition. Whether you adore or loathe Netanyahu, nobody can deny that he has been an outstanding statesman in the international arena. He has a unique relationship with the Americans and with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has built up relations with India, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Australia, Eastern Europe and now Africa.
The extraordinary opportunities of today may never be replicated. We must demonstrate restraint and ensure that our elected representatives neither undermine us nor project the image of extremists by engaging in foolish or intemperate outbursts primarily designed for personal political promotion.
Today, we have in our grasp this remarkable opportunity to genuinely move toward improving and stabilizing our relationship with our Arab neighbors.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom