You don’t have to love Donald Trump to enjoy him sometimes. Over the weekend, Trump spoke to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and upset — and if he didn’t, he should have upset — the entire Israeli right.
A U.S. president who states his commitment to a “comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and who emphasizes “his personal belief that peace is possible and that the time has come to make a deal” is one who spells trouble for Jewish settlers and their champions. From a messiah elected by divine miracle to deliver Israel from the injustices perpetrated by his predecessor, Trump could turn out to be the Israeli right wing’s worst nightmare.
Swept away by their celebration of Barack Obama’s political demise, the Israeli right paid little attention to the fact that while he was proclaiming his wish to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and as his Jewish aides were promising Israelis that they’ll be able to settle wherever their hearts desire, Trump was uncharacteristically consistent in his pledge to seek an Israeli-Palestinian deal and in claiming that such a deal was possible. As someone who views himself as the greatest dealmaker in the universe, he didn’t hide his ambition to close “the most difficult deal of all.” This resoluteness should have triggered multiple alarms among the settlers and their supporters, but the unhinged demonization that the right wing did to Obama, as well as its recurring wish to experience divine deliverance from oppression to redemption, blinded their eyes to the troubles that may lie ahead.
Obama, after all, had to take into account the pro-Israel lobby, the Republican-led Congress and the staunch Israel supporters in his own Democratic Party. Netanyahu exploited them all, sometimes successfully, as he did in 2011 by derailing Obama’s peace plans, and sometimes unsuccessfully, as in the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump is a completely different story. The GOP won’t dare confront him as it would Obama. It has already shown remarkable ideological flexibility in domestic affairs, as the new GOP health bill meant to replace Obamacare shows, and in foreign affairs, as in Vladimir Putin morphing into a right-wing American hero. In a confrontation with Trump, Netanyahu could find himself alone in the battlefield, without any real allies to rely on. If Trump is his BFF, as the prime minister is now telling everyone, perhaps he has nothing to worry about. But if Trump cares only about Trump, which sounds much more reasonable, Netanyahu may rue the day he was happy to be rid of Obama.
The question whether Trump said or didn’t say the magic words “two states” is meaningless. There are numerous ways not to reach an agreement, including building new settlements so that hope for contiguous Palestinian territory is lost forever, as well as annexing the city of Maale Adumim near Jerusalem, or all of Area C in the West Bank, or establishing Palestinian pockets of autonomy, cantons or apartheid-like Bantustans. But there is only one way to achieve an agreement, even if the Israeli right has convinced itself and others that if they deny it often enough it will disappear forever, voodoo-style. The picture could become clearer on Monday and Tuesday, following the talks that Trump’s emissary Jason Greenblatt will hold in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
It was the so-called “moderate” Sunni states that seek to strengthen Trump’s resolve against Iran that also made it clear to him that the way to their hearts goes through an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or at least the semblance of one. When Abbas understood over the weekend that Trump has gotten the message, he was naturally overjoyed. Of course, if the Obama White House had published a read out of a conversation with Abbas that stated that a peace deal with Israel “would reverberate positively throughout the region and the world,” the right wing in both countries would be livid with rage. How dare he create such “linkage” between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all the bad things that plague the Middle East, and how could he be so naive as to buy the Palestinian propaganda line that their conflict with Israel is the “crux” of the Middle East problem as a whole. But when Trump does it, everyone stays mum, as they will during tougher times in the future.
It is against this backdrop that reports were floated Saturday about a possible regional peace summit in Jordan, Egypt or even Saudi Arabia. From the moment he was elected, Trump has been making an effort to patch up his rocky relations with Riyadh and other Gulf countries, who preferred to see Hillary Clinton as president. He has kept Saudi Arabia of the list of countries affected by his immigration ban, despite the fact that 15 of the 19 terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were from Saudi Arabia. He is going to approve the $390 million arms deal with Saudi Arabia that was suspended last year by Obama, in the hope that it will pave the way for more massive arms purchases in the future. He intends to increase American support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen and the White House will host the Saudi Defense Minister and deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to discuss these and other matters this week.
Trump and his family have had extensive business dealings in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. They are used to hobnobbing with multi-billionaires like them, who speak their language, rather than prime ministers who, like Netanyahu, have to beg Hollywood producers to purchase their pink champagne and Cuban cigars for them. From that point of view, Saudi Arabia, which has had an inordinate sway on American foreign policy since World War II, will apparently continue to exert its influence, despite the fact that America is far less dependent on foreign oil than ever before.
Israel sought to highlight its discreet dealings with Sunni states in order to show Israelis and everyone else that it can secure its place in the Middle East without giving up the occupation. But it’s a double edged-sword: after investing so much time, energy and resources in collaborating with Sunni countries and cementing an anti-Iranian front, Israel will find it much harder to resist calls for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process - especially if Trump stamps his name and his prestige on it.