At the start of his meeting with President Reuven Rivlin shortly after landing in Israel, U.S. President Donald Trump presented his special envoy, Jason Greenblatt, and the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and stressed that both had left good, lucrative jobs to be his representatives in helping the Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peace agreement.
“If you don’t get peace, you’ll be blamed because I just put it on record,” he said to them, to the laughter of all those present.
But as the cliché goes, in every joke there is a grain of truth. In Trump’s case, we’re talking about a substantial grain. An Israeli official who attended one of the meetings with the U.S. president noted that the latter is focused on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace, and isn’t budging a millimeter from the message he has reiterated. “I’ve heard [the peace process] is one of the toughest deals of all,” he said alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference. “But I have a feeling we’re going to get there eventually, I hope.”
Trump’s first achievement during this visit is that he has succeeded in bringing peace, which in recent years had become a dirty word, back to the center of Israeli public and political discourse. In a country where most of the population is apathetic, cynical or in despair over the issue, and despite a reality in which except for Meretz all the Knesset parties are talking about separation at best or annexation at worst, the U.S. president has made peace great again. It’s no coincidence that Netanyahu used the word “peace,” which he’s made every effort to avoid since the 2015 elections, no less than seven times during the three-minute speech he gave during the reception for Trump at Ben-Gurion Airport.
From his public statements so far in Israel and from things he said during his meetings with Netanyahu and Rivlin, it emerges that he was deeply impressed by his visit to Saudi Arabia and his meetings with King Salman and the other leading lights of the Arab world. Trump repeatedly said that the Sunni states’ and Israel’s mutual concern about Islamic State and Iran is creating a unique opportunity for a breakthrough in the peace process. In some of his public statements he sounded as if he was practically begging Israel not to miss the opportunity and to pick up the gauntlet lying before it.
“The president said that every Arab leader he’d met in Saudi Arabia, including King Salman, raised the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” said an Israeli official who attended one of the meetings. “Trump stressed that all the Arab countries are prepared to get closer to Israel and that there are great opportunities if there is progress with the Palestinians.”
Unlike Obama and Kerry, Trump intimidates Netanyahu
The messages Trump conveyed during his visit about peace being possible and the great opportunity Israel ought to exploit are very similar to the messages that were heard during the previous eight years from former President Barack Obama and over the past four years from former Secretary of State John Kerry. When Obama spoke like this, however, Jerusalem argued he was being naïve. And when Kerry did, they called him messianic and obsessive, and claimed he wanted to win a Nobel Peace Prize at Israel’s expense.
It’s easy to imagine Israeli reactions if Obama had gone to visit the Western Wall without a representative of the Israeli government, as Trump did, or if Kerry had said that the Western Wall “is part of Jerusalem,” rather than Israel. But no MK, minister or senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office would besmirch Trump. On the contrary, Netanyahu has been going along with the American president and has resumed singing songs of peace.
During his four months in the White House, Trump has not only returned the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to center stage, but rather easily extracted a decision to restrain settlement construction and a package of confidence-building measures on the West Bank, of which there have been none for a long time. The reason for this is that in contrast to the period of Kerry and Obama, Netanyahu is much more intimidated by Trump than by Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained in a briefing for reporters on Air Force One on the flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel that Trump is prepared to invest considerable personal effort to advance the peace process if Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would demonstrate seriousness on the issue. Right now the Americans are not convinced that that’s the case. Whoever watched Trump’s and Netanyahu’s statements on Monday night at the Prime Minister’s Residence saw one leader who believes with all his heart that peace is possible, alongside a leader who believes with all his heart that there’s no chance to achieve peace.
Trump has the will and motivation, but for now he has no plan. But the close relationship he seems to have made with the Saudi king could lead him to choose the Arab Peace Initiative developed in Saudi Arabia – a plan that’s been on the shelf since 2002, waiting for Israel to do something with it. Netanyahu spoke Monday about peace but was careful not to mention the Palestinians. He told Trump that for the first time in his life, he feels that there’s a chance to change the Arab world’s attitude toward Israel. He’s right. But for his feelings to turn into concrete steps, Netanyahu is going to have to change his attitude toward the Palestinians.