MAY 18, 2017 — If Israelis could have voted in the US election last year, Donald Trump would have won the popular vote by a large margin. In Jerusalem, Trump seemed like the perfect kind of guy who should be sitting in the White House. He appeared to be the opposite of Obama, who was seen by many as a foreign policy neophyte – obsessed with freezing Israeli settlements while ignoring Palestinian terrorism and its culture of hatred toward Israel. Trump told large crowds that he understood Islamic fundamentalism, and repeatedly voiced his support for Israel. Before the NH Republican primary in 2016, he declared that, if elected, he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “I am for that 100 percent,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network. And a few months later, at an AIPAC gathering in Washington, he announced his intention to tear up the US nuclear agreement with Iran. “My number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” Trump told the conference.
Just days before Trump is set to visit Saudi Arabia and Israel, Israelis are getting a glimpse of the new American president, and are learning that he may not be their kind of guy after all. The Iran deal is still in place, and last week, Trump allegedly disclosed classified Israeli intelligence to the Russians that was provided to the US, prompting former Mossad head Shabtai Shavit to call for a halt in intelligence sharing with Israel’s strongest supporter. And, as Trump began to set his Israel itinerary, national security adviser H.R. McMaster further muddled the administration’s position on Jerusalem when he declined to say if the Western Wall was part of Israel.
Trump is expected to begin a new push to bring Netanyahu and Abbas back to the bargaining table. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders have not objected to Trump’s overture but expectations are nil. With Abbas’ Fatah Party performing dismally in this month’s West Bank elections – which Hamas chose to boycott – he may have some extra initiative to listen to Trump’s offer. And, Netanyahu, who has built quiet contacts with several Arab countries, also will be curious to hear what Trump is offering.
Still, nearly 24 years after the Rabin-Arafat handshake, the two sides are far from a just peace. While land swaps were agreed upon by Arafat and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the 2000 Camp David summit, Palestinians still insist on an armed state, which the Israelis will not allow. While Barak offered to share a part of Jerusalem in the 2000 negotiations, that offer has been off the table since Arafat ordered up a second Intifada days after those talks failed. One of the major sticking points, according to former Likud Cabinet Minister Dan Meridor, is the Palestinians’ insistence upon implementing its own “Right of Return.” Meridor, who was part of the Israeli negotiating team at Camp David in 2000, believes that is still a key issue that the Palestinians will not compromise on. If implemented, the “Right of Return” would allow the 500,000 Arabs who were displaced during the 1948 war to return to their original villages – now part of Israel – along with their descendants, which now number around 5 million.
For Trump, a visit to Israel and the West Bank will be a welcome relief from the daily chaos he faces in Washington. But his freewheeling style, which is often accompanied by statements and accusations that are not based on facts, could fan the flames of an already smoldering, and seemingly intractable conflict. Mr. Trump would be wise to cancel his trip, and stay in Washington to take care of the turmoil in his house. At this point, the Israelis and Palestinians do not need more pomp and circumstance. They need a partner with a plan.