For once, it was not what President Trump said. It was what he didn’t say.
28 hours of talks, meetings and ceremonies in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority have left both sides with a vague message of hope, but with scant details.
Trump, who offered a clear commitment to take on Middle East peacemaking, avoided any of the specifics that have made this task so daunting for his predecessors for the past three decades. By refusing to discuss the nature of a future solution to the conflict, its general contours, and the key preconditions for entering negotiations, Trump kept both sides content — at least until he gets down to real dealmaking.
A senior administration officials briefing reporters after Air Force 1 took off from Ben-Gurion airport, set a low bar for Trump’s first stab at brokering Middle East peace. “You can’t just walk in on Day One and sign a deal that no one has gotten done in 35 years,” the senior official said, explaining that Trump’s goal was to “do a lot of listening” and to “ try to create a lot of momentum and optimism around the prospect for peace.”
Trump’s Middle East negotiating tactic, judging by his meetings in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and by his Tuesday address summarizing his trip, relies heavily on warm embraces while skimping on details.
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, in 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 hardliners 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 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 for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or curbs on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Reports on Israeli TV as the president made his way back to Air Force 1 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 they 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 mega-donor 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 relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem 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 about the Palestinian right for self-determination, Trump refused to go into the question 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 tie between 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. The senior official briefing reporters after the visit seemed to allude that this will be the way Trump would like to continue as he moves forward. “The one thing that it probably will be is quiet and discreet,” he said of future negotiations. Quiet and discreet are probably not the adjectives most would use to describe Trump, but at least for now, this is what Middle East diplomacy will look like.
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