Donald Trump’s Middle Eastern tour lived up to his entrepreneur, celebrity persona —packed with action and marked by plenty of hystorical and symbolic firsts — kickstarting the trip in Saudi Arabia and being the first sitting U.S. president to pay a visit to the Western Wall, in the heart of disputed city of Jerusalem. Turning his meandering rhetoric into something Middle Eastern leaders can hold onto was another expectation Trump lived up to, but after his helicopter took off from Ben Gurion Airport, Palestinians and Israelis can safely conclude that they were not on the list of those leaders.
Israelis have a reason to feel emboldened and encouraged after Trump’s visit to the Western Wall. Up until this point, U.S. presidents paid these visits after the mandate or during political campaigns in order to uphold the official, bi-partisan U.S. position that the status of Jerusalem is disputed and distance themselves from possible diplomatic repercussions. Trump’s visit adds a layer of legitimization and assurance for Israel, which is exactly what it needs after a rocky eight-year relationship with Barak Obama’s administration. However, it is important to point out that Trump was not accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which leaves the U.S. president with plenty of maneuvering space for ambiguity — again, he did something that both Israel and Palestinians can interpret in a way they deem fit.
Ambiguosity and vagueness regarding Israel seemed to be the staple of Trump’s speech delivered at the Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, where the American tour in the Middle East took off. As Raphael Ahren, diplomatic correspondent for the Times of Israel noted, it constituted only three references to Israel — one was about his tour plans, the second was an open call for the “three Abrahamic faiths” to join and cooperate in delivering, among other things, peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the third was an attack on Iran for “vowing the destruction of Israel.”
“In making this choice, he starkly differed from his predecessor. Barack Obama, in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, mentioned Israel 23 times…While Obama made an effort to appear balanced and fair to all sides, he left no doubt about American support for the Jewish state, and even called on the Arab world to consider adapting some of his views, ” Ahren wrote, pointing out that Trump missed an opportunity to press for Israel “where it counts.”
This should not be referred to as missing opportunity — passing it by is a more fitting description. In his quest to seal the deal with the Gulf states to counter Iran, Trump made sure not to upset Arab leaders. After all, rejectionism towards Israel is still an overwhelming feeling in the Arab world, and the United States isn’t winning any popularity awards in the Middle East either. Avoiding association with Israel was of prime importance for signees, and Trump gladly obliged.
The Jerusalem Question
What is definite is that Trump did not oblige the campaign promise that Israelis kept closest to their heart — the status of Jerusalem. The Israeli public seemed consumed by the “will he?“ question ahead of the president’s carefully crafted visit. The answer “no” seemed to be spelled out early on.
Working out the POTUS’s itinerary took off as passionately and gloriously as one would expect from the tour, which had elements of a reality show. A shouting match between Israeli officials and counselors at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, stating that the Western Wall, the holiest place for Jews to pray, “is not part of Israel and not Israel’s responsibility” made its way from the hallways to primetime news on Israeli Channel 2. The White House quickly disassociated itself from officials’ statements. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, also expressed her belief that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital.
In the end, the most Israel got out of the promise was an announcement of Trump’s and Netanyahu’s statements on the White House website, showing the location as “Jerusalem, Israel,” which was quickly changed to simply “Jerusalem, ” without any additional comments. So, while Trump knows the value of symbolic gestures and felt that the Western Wall visit was more than enough, it seems that all of the ink for signing bold moves ran out in Riyadh. Does it spell disaster? Definitely not. Jerusalem is under effective Israeli rule, and nobody can contest that reality on the ground. Boycotts or lack of recognition, as painful they are for Israelis, are things that the country knows how to live with.
As seen in Riyadh, Trump is (hopelessly) looking to groom Sunni Arab allies as the main line of defense against Iranian expansion, and rocking the boat with bold gestures simply will not keep them on board. No hard feelings in business — at least not for Trump.
What invoked some hard feelings among Israelis was Saudi Arabia’s uncontested success stemming from Trump’s visit, thanks to the series of agreements at a total value of more than $380 billion of investments. Saudi Arabia’s money will be mainly directed at American infrastructure, and the U.S. is investing in the kingdom’s defense industry. On Sunday, Trump signed a memorandum with leaders of the Gulf monarchies in order to cut funding for terrorism. The signees included Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The entire ordeal raised concerns about whether Israel would maintain its qualitative edge after this boost for Saudis, and many officials expressed disappointment that the deal was concluded without any consultation with Israel. This might prove to be worrisome for the U.S. as well, since Trump obviously decided to fight fire with fire, thus continuing a multi-decade American tradition of futile foreign policy that comes down to solving one problem only to create 99 new ones. While Iranian expansion is a legitimate concern, so is a renewed relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which has been steadily deteriorating since the end of Cold War. Moreover, pontificating about Iranian terrorism while sitting next to the monarch whose country’s chief exports are Salafi jihadism and Wahhabism hardly creates a clear vision of a stable future in the Middle East. Trump’s business approach to the region, thinking that money and soft talk can keep everything in check, made even Israeli politicians flinch. This approach might spell doom for the most overused words of the visit: “the peace.”
The Peace Process and Settlements
“It is something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” Trump said about the peace agreement during a meeting with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in Washington. Truthfully, Trump also thought that delivering a new health care act, making Mexicans pay for the wall, banning Muslims from entering the U.S. and ripping up the Nuclear Deal would be easy — resulting in the recent exasperated realization that he voiced in an interview with AP. “This is thousands of times bigger, the United States, than the biggest company in the world…So you know, I really just see the bigness of it all, but also the responsibility.”
The president’s belief that governing is much like running the company might shed some light on the way he (mis)understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he often frames in the context of “making a deal.” Although Israeli media praised Trump for injecting religious discourse into his speech on the subject, his actions consistently follow different reasoning — from his approach to both sides to the choice of his representatives.
The meeting with Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem constituted a light slap on the wrist regarding the PA’s practice of financing jailed Palestinian terrorists and the families of killed attackers. “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded and even rewarded,” Trump said in a speech that carefully omitted any mention of Palestinians’ right to their state. Conservatives in Israel already see that as an encouragement to continue with their prized policies. “After this speech and this visit, there is no excuse not to restart building in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It’s clear that even if the U.S. opposes building, they won’t fight against it,” said Yossi Dagan, head of the Shomron Regional Council in the northern West Bank.
He has every reason to believe that, if we take into account the United States’ new ambassador to Israel, bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, a longtime friend of Trump who has contributed financially towards Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Even from his diplomatic position, he made no attempts at being even remotely neutral on the subject, which is identified by the Palestinians as a burning problem in the stalled peace process. In an interview with Israel Hayom, Friedman implied that Palestine’s “unnegotiable” position on settlements relies solely on the lines drawn by the U.S. administration, pointing out that a settlement freeze was a precondition to negotiations in 2009, but now there is “no demand for a settlement freeze, and Abbas is prepared to meet with the prime minister of Israel without any preconditions.”
Again, demands for a settlement freeze are a staple of the PA’s policy, and Netanyahu and Abbas still aren’t sitting in the same room, so Palestinians are not doing anything out of character. It is safe to assume that they are ready to put up with a few symbolic moves while they are still in the woods with the president who clearly favors the Israeli side until they figure out just how much they can get out of Trump. Additionally, while Trump claims that Gulf states are ready for peace with Israel, the very same Arab leaders made it perfectly clear that it won’t happen without substantial moves on the Israeli side, and that it won’t happen unless it’s framed as a regional Arab-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Sidelined Palestinians may not have much to offer in the grand scheme of Trump’s Middle Eastern business, but after Arab leaders spent decades grooming them into a popular rallying cry, now they have to pay dues to their propaganda trope. As much as they would like to do business with Israel without getting into the hassle of solving the conflict, their credibility and popularity at home depend on it.
The Ultimate Deal
Trump’s tacit compliance with new settlements, keeping Palestinians’ statehood ambitions at bay and toying with Jerusalem’s status seem to be the refreshing post-Obama breeze that Netanyahu‘s conservative government has been waiting for. Both leaders used this visit to shake off controversies at home, appearing accepted and leaderlike. However, long-term, the perpetual ambiguity will bring no change for the Israelis, and certainly won’t boost their position in the region. The ultimate deal is hardly about them — it is about the U.S. and its Arab allies, and if Israel slips into it through the cracks, good. If it doesn’t, Trump can live with that. Solving the conflict — making peace — is simply a side trophy.
Basically, the news is that there is no news. Israel and Palestine want the same things that they wanted a year ago, and they have been uncompromising on the same issues for more than two decades. Trump is talking about a peace agreement, with a tougher stance on the Palestinians, without coming forward with any concrete moves because all of the formulas are well-known, and the question remains only whether they are going to be implemented. While it is good that Palestinians seem to have the impression that they are going to have to compromise, it is bad that Trump perpetuates Netanyahu’s belief that he can have his cake and eat it, too.
Since this visit, at least for Israelis and Palestinians, came down to symbolic gestures, let’s not forget the one that didn‘t happen. Trump reportedly canceled a visit to the historic Masada desert fortress after the Israel Air Force informed him that he would not be allowed to land his helicopter at the UNESCO-listed archaeological site. It is known that one great and glorious army struggled to conquer Masada millenniae ago, only to settle for a Pyrrhic vcitory, and today, for an ordinary tourist, even those remaining stairs aren’t the easiest feat. Thus, the act of quitting might be an omen of Trump’s inevitable realization of the “bigness” and depth of the century-old grievances, which, a little bit like Masada itself, serves as a monument to all of the American leaders whose great plans crashed against the stone walls of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.