Leaving Israelis and Palestinians with a vague message of hope and scant details, President Trump wrapped up his first visit to the region Tuesday morning.
After holding one-on-one talks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, Trump, the unlikely diplomat, delivered an address that succeeded in giving both sides just a little bit of what they’ve been asking for, while skipping over controversial issues that have bogged down Middle East peacemaking for more than three decades.
First and foremost, Trump left players in the region with a clear understanding that an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is on the table, and that both parties are worthy partners in this endeavor. “Palestinians are ready to reach for peace,” Trump said in his speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, directing his message to Netanyahu and his Cabinet ministers, who, during many occasions, have argued that the Palestinians under Abbas are not a willing partner for peace and that they must undergo changes and meet preconditions before reaching a deal with Israel. He also made the same statement about Netanyahu, making clear not only to Abbas but also to reluctant right-wing members of the prime minister’s coalition that behind closed doors Netanyahu has expressed his willingness to relaunch the peace process.
But hard-liners in Israel could find plenty to cheer about in Trump’s concluding speech, too.
Despite expectations, fueled by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s promise, that Trump will recognize the Palestinian right for self-determination, he did nothing of the kind. Trump also avoided any mention of a future Palestinian state in his brief remarks with Abbas after their meeting in Bethlehem.
Also absent from Trump’s visit was any mention of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or of curbs on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Reports on Israeli TV as the president made his way back to Air Force One noted that there was a “great sense of satisfaction” among ministers from the Likud and from the right-wing Jewish Home party following Trump’s address.
“A first presidential speech without any mention of two states or the settlements,” the report exclaimed.
And indeed, the settlement issue, which dominated Israeli-American relations under President Obama, was totally absent from Trump’s visit to Israel. The American Embassy in Tel Aviv invited local settlement leaders to attend Trump’s speech at the Israel Museum, and these leaders could find great comfort in his decision not to mention the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, or to make any comment about the shape of the final-status solution to the conflict.
Still, not all was rosy for Netanyahu or his supporters, or for megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who sat in the front row.
Israelis had expected Trump to make some kind of a gesture regarding the status of Jerusalem.
Hope that Trump will announce the U.S. Embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv was replaced with a less ambitious goal of having the president make a reference recognizing Israel’s right to the city. But Trump, in a carefully worded speech, walked around the issue. Instead he showered praise on the holy city and its diverse history.
“What a heritage, what heritage,” Trump marveled.
He also made no reference to a question that Israel views as critical in any future negotiation with the Palestinians - recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Just as he did not elaborate on the Palestinian right for self-determination, Trump refused to go into the matter of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. In doing so, he left many Israelis, who had hoped for an American stance siding with their position, slightly disappointed.
Also of concern to Israelis is Trump’s refusal to take on, at least in his public statements, the issue of Palestinian payments to families of terrorists. And it wasn’t like Netanyahu didn’t try. In his introductory remarks, Netanyahu tried to link the terror attack in Manchester on Monday night and the question of Palestinian funding for terrorists, arguing that under Abbas, a perpetrator of a similar attack, would receive a lifelong stipend.
But Trump purposefully declined to take on the issue or to threaten cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinians until the practice is stopped.
Departing from Israel for the European leg of his overseas trip, Trump has left Israelis and Palestinians with no tangible framework for negotiations, and no guiding principles to frame the negotiations. The key to achieving Trump’s “ultimate deal” in the Middle East is still in the details, and these details have not been made clearer after his 20-something-hour visit to the heart of the conflict.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman