Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is tricky

By Trudy Rubin

Philadelphia Enquirer

President Donald Trump accompanied by the Israeli President Rueben Rivlin, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Monday.
President Donald Trump accompanied by the Israeli President Rueben Rivlin, right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Monday. AP

U.S. presidents of every political stripe have plunged into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, only to be humbled at the end.

Now Donald Trump is trying his hand. He landed in Jerusalem on Monday, after two days in Saudi Arabia, having declared his eagerness to make “the ultimate deal” on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Only days ago, he told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that such a deal was “something I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”

Only someone totally unversed in Middle East history and realities could spout such pap.

Of course, this is Trump’s first foreign trip as president, which also includes a stop at the Vatican, a NATO summit, and a schedule that could flummox a far more knowledgeable leader. He will be dogged by self-inflicted troubles back home, even as foreign leaders watch to see whether he wanders off message.

So here is the advice I hope the smarter members of his traveling team are trying to spoon feed the president on the Israel-Palestine part of his journey in the fervent hope he listens — and doesn’t go rogue.

First, tone down the messianic predictions of peace in our time. This should be a learning trip for Trump if he is willing to listen and observe carefully, which is not his forte. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders are willing or able to make the compromises needed to get serious peace talks back on track. Moreover, the time for a two-state solution may have already passed.

Neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his far-right government is willing any longer to entertain the idea of a viable two-state solution, meaning a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel. Netanyahu’s endorsement of ever more rapid Jewish settlement of the West Bank makes this very clear.

Trump has talked glibly about the possibility of a “one-state solution” — which would result in a largely disenfranchised Arab majority within a Greater Israel. Clearly, the president had no grasp of the risks that idea presented to the survival of the Jewish state.

Second, don’t let the pomp and flattery that the Saudis heaped upon you fool you into believing we have entered a new Mideast era. The sub-rosa alliance that has developed between Sunni Gulf Arab states and Israel to counter Iranian mischief in the region may produce some modest normalization with Israel. This incremental progress would be significant and should be encouraged.

But even such small steps would require that Israel’s government make reciprocal gestures. Prime among them would be the freezing of Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank outside of settlement blocs likely to remain part of Israel under a two-state solution. Such an Israeli gesture is highly unlikely.

Nor is there any prospect that the Israelis would endorse the Saudis’ 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which called for full Arab recognition of Israel in return for a Palestinian state based on 1967 lines.

Third, dynastic politics may be popular in the White House and in Riyadh, but it won’t produce Mideast peace.

It’s all well and good for the Saudi monarch to appoint his young pilot son as ambassador to Washington and make another son defense minister and key interlocutor with the West. But Trump’s appointment of first son-in-law Jared Kushner and the Trump organization’s top lawyer as chief Mideast peace makers won’t cut it.

Yes, Kushner and his family firm have been immersed in real estate deals in Israel. And yes, the first son-in-law intervened to help clinch a major Lockheed Martin weapons sale to the Saudis that Trump wanted finalized before he reached the desert kingdom. But such personalized business deals don’t provide the savvy to navigate the Mideast’s political minefields.

No peace process will revive unless the president himself masters a minimum of details, for which he needs expert advisers.

Fourth, during your visit to Israel, do not — repeat, do not — pledge to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as you promised on the campaign trail.

Yes, the embassy would be located in West Jerusalem, which would remain the capital of the Jewish state in any peace deal. But Arab states, along with Palestinians and most Israelis, would see this move as a signal that Washington accepted Israel’s claim to all Jerusalem, including the Arab East of the city. In other words, that East Jerusalem was not subject to peace negotiations.

Do not doubt the explosive power of the Jerusalem issue. An announcement of an impending embassy move would end any putative peace process before it began. It would provoke violence in the West Bank and within the Arab world, and undermine the nascent ties between Israel and Gulf Arabs.

Some careless words, an errant tweet, could turn this Mideast trip into a political disaster.

So fifth, please stay on message, Mr. President, until you leave the Mideast behind.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.