Throughout his election campaign and thereafter, even while fulsomely praising Israel and vowing to treat us as a true ally, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that his former deal making experience would enable him to resolve the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Some Israelis became euphoric with the defeat of Hillary Clinton. They assumed that with Trump’s commitment to supporting Israel, his downplaying the settlement issue and even questioning the inevitability of a two-state solution, combined with his pro-Israeli advisers and family, they had a green light to act unilaterally. Naftali Bennett, head of Habayit Hayehudi, and radicals from Likud called for massive settlement expansion outside the settlement blocs and immediate annexations.
However, Trump unequivocally requested that Israel not initiate major settlement activity until joint guidelines were agreed upon. He spoke warmly to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, invited him to Washington and made clear that the U.S. intended to facilitate the peace process, reiterating, however, that differences must be determined in direct negotiations between the parties.
This led to pathetic accusations that Trump was following the precedent of former presidents, abandoning his electoral undertakings concerning Israel, treating Abbas as a moderate and returning to a bottomless pit in which nothing will change.
Critics noted that Defense Secretary James Mattis had a long-standing record of opposition to settlement expansion and previously considered linkage to Israel as an obstacle to dealing with the Arab world. Mattis initially selected as his undersecretary for policy Anne Patterson, the Obama administration ambassador to Egypt who promoted ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and was an apologist for the Palestinians. He was subsequently compelled to withdraw her appointment.
Michael Ratney, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem, and Yael Lempert, who was senior director for Israel, Egypt and the Levant in Barack Obama’s National Security Council, both currently remain at the White House. Lempert accompanied Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, on his visit to Israel and the PA.
Sceptics also suggest that the failure to immediately move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is a result of Arab pressure and the continued influence of the old anti-Israel elements and that Trump is distancing himself from his uninhibitedly pro-Israel profile.
As of now, this pessimism about Trump is unjustified. It fails to factor that for the first time, despite the presence of a sprinkling of officers with records of anti-Israel hostility, the overwhelming majority of Trump’s administration and his intimate advisers share long track records of pro-Israeli activity. They include David Friedman, the new American ambassador to Israel and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy — both Orthodox Jews and long-standing supporters of Israel.
Trump is not beholden to any of the failed policies of his predecessors. His objective is to build a genuine U.S.-Israel alliance while exploring opportunities for renewing the peace process. This is in stark contrast to Obama, whose bias and hostility to Netanyahu and Israel encouraged him to diplomatically exonerate the Palestinians and undermine Israel.
To date, the administration has honored its commitment to treat Israel as a special ally. The retention of foreign aid to Israel when other aid programs were drastically cut back and the aggressive U.S. response to the demonization of Israel by U.N. agencies is almost breathtaking for Israelis accustomed to U.S. indifference.
Trump has created channels through which the U.S and Israel can, wherever possible, plan future strategies together.
But in his determination to test the water and seek to renew the peace process, he has stressed that Israel does not have a blank check for unlimited construction in the settlements. He has conveyed his views discretely to avoid assault from the media, so both parties may be able to make compromises without confronting domestic upheavals.
Netanyahu has repeatedly warned the radicals in his government that taking unilateral steps without coordination with the Americans could have disastrous consequences as Trump would almost certainly feel betrayed and could become quite bellicose.
Responsible Israeli leaders must now propose solutions that will enable separation from the Palestinians, elimination of incitement and terror, retention and hopefully annexation of the settlement blocs and ensuring security to guarantee that we do not find Iran or Hamas encroaching on our borders.
Trump is approaching the situation from the grass-roots level rather than starting with an end solution. He is also behaving in stark contrast to Obama, who sought to initiate talks based on acceptance of the indefensible 1949 armistice boundaries as borders and deeming Israel to be an occupier of all territories beyond the Green Line — something that no Israeli government could contemplate. While the Palestinians refused to come to the negotiating table, Obama allowed Israel to be condemned as the obstacle to peace negotiations. Meanwhile, the Palestinians were given carte blanche to intensify their incitement and sanctify terror.
The mission of Trump’s representative, Greenblatt, is to report on the views of both parties. He met leaders in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman, stressing to all Trump’s determination to achieve a genuine peace.
He did not make any suggestions to Netanyahu beyond conveying the need to rein in unlimited settlement construction and the need for Israel to liaise with the administration and avoid unilateral initiatives that could create a crisis. For the first-time as a formal U.S. representative, Greenblatt also had an official meeting to ascertain the views of settler representatives. Israeli leaders from Right to Left who met with Greenblatt spoke positively about him.
He also called on the 82-year-old Abbas to halt the incitement and terminate payments to families of imprisoned terrorists. Abbas, as in the past, again pledged his commitment to achieve a peace settlement.
If Israel plays its cards well, the Palestinians will damn themselves. In stark contrast to former Secretary of State John Kerry, who refused to confront the Palestinians and blamed Israel for the breakdown in peace negotiations, ultimately the Palestinians will be required to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and give up on their demand of a “right of return” of 5 to 6 million descendants of Palestinian refugees.
Unless the PA dramatically reverses its core objectives — which is almost inconceivable — for the first time, the United States will clearly expose the intransigency of the Palestinian leaders and demonstrate that their end goal is not a Palestinian state but the elimination of Israel. If Abbas acts true to form, the myth of moderation and Palestinian victimhood will be exposed and the Palestinian leaders will be condemned as terrorists.
At this point, the genuine friendship and support of the United States will enable Israel to move forward and determine its borders. Israel will also be able to initiate further economic activity and cooperation to improve the Palestinian standard of living, which in the long term may lead to a peaceful compromise based on self-interest.
But as Israel emerges from the humiliation of the Obama era, the development of a common front against Iran between Israel and Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia also obliges Israel to step warily.
In the meantime, we must hold back, limit potential confrontations and strive to reach accommodations with Trump, enabling him to test the waters for his “grand deal” and discover for himself whether there is any way in which to achieve a meaningful modus vivendi with the Palestinians at this stage.
Netanyahu faces a very difficult challenge in his effort to avoid potential confrontations with Trump. He is under enormous pressure to impose limits on settlement construction during the period that Trump engages in his effort to achieve the impossible with the Palestinians. The radical wings of his coalition have the capacity to break up his government over this issue and he will need to walk the tightrope. At the same time, he is aware that the clear majority of Israelis would endorse his approach, and the odds are that they would also re-elect him as prime minister. Who else could replicate his ability to steer the negotiations with Trump and simultaneously maintain a good working relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin?
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom