If President Trump pulls this off, he will have elevated himself from mortal deal maker to American statesman.
Only one person benefited from the White House meeting on May 3 between US President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Merely by having been invited and coming, Abbas may have shored up flagging confidence at home and dwindling support from other Arab states. But other than pleasant words, there was nothing to suggest that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are anywhere close to back on track.
For Trump’s part, he exhibited his characteristic naiveté, claiming that solving the near-70-year dispute “may not be as difficult as people have thought over the years.” It is hard to imagine what it may have been in the detailed briefings the president should have received in advance of the meeting — or in his conversation with Abbas or in his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February — that convinced him that the region’s longest-enduring conflict was “not so difficult.” The immensely difficult conflict has confounded every US presidential administration going back to Harry Truman and frustrated herculean efforts of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Nevertheless, we are led to believe, the president’s unrestrained confidence in his self-touted deal-making abilities will supply the secret sauce for ultimate peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The president would be well to learn of the innumerable frustrations and disappointments of his predecessors, many of whom were more favorably positioned for negotiating a deal — or so was thought — and better equipped and advised for doing so. But it seems the same sweet siren song that drew each of them into the negotiating quagmire has again taken possession of another American president’s ambitions.
NO SOLUTION IN THE OFFING
Trump wisely stopped short of actually proposing solutions. It was not the occasion. Nor does any solution have the remotest possibility of going anywhere. The two sides have never been further apart and have shown not the slightest inkling of reentering negotiations.
One idea circulating among some pundits and even Palestinians had been that the US president might call for an international conference, much as George H.W. Bush did in 1991 in Madrid. Trump sensibly called for no such gathering. Bush had a unifying and galvanizing event, the successful expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait by a US-led and impressively organized Arab and Western coalition. Momentum was on the president’s side then. Yet he and his masterful secretary of state, Jim Baker, ultimately failed in getting the Palestinians and other Arab states to come around and negotiate a Mideast peace.
No such unifier looms on the horizon today. Not even an expected expulsion of the Islamic State from Mosul, Iraq. The Middle East, like Palestine itself, is woefully divided and conflicted, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hardly rises to an issue on the radar screens of the region’s major powers — i.e., Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran — though it receives perfunctory lip service.
For Israelis and the pro-Israeli set in the US, Trump may have disappointed. A number of them had called on Trump to press Abbas to stop funding terrorism by paying the families of those Palestinians who attack Israelis, and even suspend American funding for the Palestinian Authority until such payments stop. That did not happen.
But Trump also withheld mention of the traditional approach for addressing the conflict: the two-state solution. Abbas mentioned it in his remarks before the media following the meeting. But President Trump stuck to the script of his earlier meeting with Netanyahu, affirming he could live with whatever the sides can agree.
Abbas’ script was also familiar, perhaps all too much. He offered no openings or softening of Palestinian demands on borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements and Palestinian prisoners. These positions have become so familiar and immutable that even Trump could have written them.
But it’s not only Palestinian rigidity that lowers the odds of a solution to microscopic probabilities. Abbas holds little trust among the Palestinian public today. Polls show him with favorability ratings at less than a third; 60 percent call on him to resign. It’s hard to imagine that even if handed the perfect agreement, Abbas could convince an already highly discouraged and skeptical Palestinian public to accept it. He simply cannot deliver.
Nevertheless, the meeting afforded Abbas a desperately needed opportunity to return to the world stage and demonstrate his relevance. Palestinians will take note, if only briefly, but a dismal Palestinian economy, weakening ties to key Arab states and the chasm-like divide between his Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza all mitigate against prospects for a solution in the near-to-medium term, regardless of Trump’s deal-making talents.
In fact, from the US administration, there appears no plan or strategy for addressing this problem. Mere “diplomatic style” of the president, as the White House spokesperson asserted, cannot begin to cut this Gordian knot. One need only consider the efforts of Bill Clinton in eight years of near-non-stop diplomacy and personal intervention.
WANTED: TRANSFORMATIONAL DIPLOMACY
Trump and his administration must confront the profound nature of this challenge and acknowledge that it cannot be settled at the moment, regardless of their efforts. The levels of trust are abysmally low and the lack of will on either side to make the momentous compromises necessary is at equally historic rock-bottom levels. Absent trust and will on the part of both sides, as well as courageous leadership, no solution is possible now or ever.
Donald Trump comes from a transactional world: two sides need a deal and, in the art of the give-and-take of deal-making, achieve more than what they had before.
But an Israeli-Palestinian solution exists in a transformational space. For the Israelis, that transformation will mean acknowledging that while they have a historically legitimate claim to a Jewish state, their assertion of that claim has meant painful sacrifice and loss to many Palestinians. For the Palestinians, it will mean recognizing and accepting the legitimacy of the historical claim of Jews to a Jewish homeland: Israel.
If President Trump can achieve that kind of transformation, he will have elevated himself from mortal deal maker to American statesman.