President Donald Trump boasted during the election that his real estate background could help him succeed where other U.S. presidents have failed in making what he calls the “ultimate” land deal – a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Once he took office, he dove into the seemingly intractable conflict immediately and personally, and named his son-in-law and a trusted family lawyer as would-be peace envoys.
“There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians – none whatsoever,” Trump said in April.
But five months into the job, Trump is seeing that enthusiasm, business acumen and family connections only go so far, and that a strong pro-Israel stance doesn’t mean Israeli leaders will see things his way.
The peace effort he launched is at a pivot point. But the negotiating team is reckoning with the limits of the goodwill extended to the new administration and the hardened positions on both sides that helped sink previous U.S. peace efforts.
At times, the small U.S. negotiating team has appeared buffeted by dueling leaks to Israeli and Palestinian media outlets, each painting the other side as the obstacle. Some commentary cast senior adviser Jared Kushner as a babe in the Mideast woods.
In separate meetings with Israelis and Palestinians in late June, Kushner used none of his father-in-law’s hyperbole about a grand bargain, and left some of his audience with the impression that the United States is reconsidering the fast start.
“They are reaching the realization pretty early that neither side is serious about moving forward with the peace process,” said Frank Lowenstein, who led the last U.S. effort in 2013 and 2014.
U.S. officials deny Palestinian media reports that they are slowing down their efforts or lowering their sights, and they stress that no one around Trump thought that the task would be easy. The effort is not only continuing but expanding, U.S. officials said, adding that high-level discussions described as “productive” have continued since Kushner’s return to Washington.
“We spent the past few months renewing each side’s commitment to trying to achieve peace and to begin conversations without preconditions,” said one U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. “We are going to continue our steady engagement with each side, and conversations will get more in-depth as we go along.”
Trump got firsthand exposure to the maneuvering and pressure tactics that have been used by both sides in the six-decade impasse during his recent trip to Israel and the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used an intimate May 22 meeting with Trump to show him an Israeli-compiled video of what Netanyahu called anti-Israel incitement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel’s would-be partner in any peace deal.
Trump met with Abbas the next day and surprised him with a fusillade of accusations about terrorism and Palestinian attitudes toward Israel that Trump said would thwart a deal, U.S. and other officials familiar with the meeting said.
Trump bellowed, “You tricked me!” at a shaken Abbas, a U.S. official told Israel’s Channel 2.
Afterward, Abbas thanked Trump for attempting negotiations, but made a point of publicly reiterating Palestinian demands for a settlement that include the hardest elements for Israeli leaders to swallow.
“Our commitment is to cooperate with you in order to make peace and forge a historic peace deal with the Israelis,” Abbas said woodenly.
Some U.S. officials concluded that by showing Trump the video, which included snippets of Abbas appearing to incite Palestinians to violence, Netanyahu was intent on killing any possibility of peace talks before they even began. Trump’s viewing of the video has not been previously reported.
The effort may have backfired, however. On later reflection, Trump appeared to recognize that the Israelis had tried to skew the Abbas meeting, one person who spoke with him said. Others close to the fledgling peace effort denied that Trump felt misused or misled by Netanyahu.
Either way, the episode gave Trump a taste of how difficult any future shuttle diplomacy might be, and a glimpse into how both Israel and the Palestinians can attempt to manipulate American intermediaries.
The Abbas video is similar to others produced by Israel and shown to U.S. officials in the past, U.S. and Israeli officials said. But this one appeared aimed to discredit Abbas personally and to trigger an “emotional response” from Trump on the eve of his meeting with the aging Palestinian leader, said a senior U.S. official briefed on the meeting.
Israel has been pressing American officials on the issue of Palestinian incitement for years, and it was a focus of Abbas’s first meeting with Trump earlier in May.
An Israeli official confirmed that Netanyahu played a video about incitement, and said it was an attempt to set the record straight after what Israeli leaders viewed as Abbas’s duplicity during that White House visit.
“Abbas lied to POTUS at a joint press conference about ‘educating Palestinians for peace,’ – a ridiculous assertion – and Israel simply showed why it is not true,” the official said, using the acronym for president of the United States.
“The prime minister has full confidence in President Trump and will continue working closely with the administration in order to advance the political process,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.
Abbas, meanwhile, felt betrayed by both Trump and Netanyahu, the senior U.S. official briefed on the meetings said. That first White House meeting had gone well, Abbas told supporters afterward, and he was optimistic despite Trump’s frequent statements in support of Israel.
“We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump told Abbas during their White House press conference May 3. “We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done.”
The optimism has faded, and the jockeying has begun, said David Makovsky, an adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry during the last peace push, who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Trump discovering Mideast peace is more complicated than he thought – Chicago Tribune}