May 24, 2017
President Trump has now completed the Middle East leg of his first trip abroad. Though not as important as what he discussed with leaders in Saudi Arabia and Israel, images from his visits were also interesting. For example, especially after his visit to Riyadh, millions and millions of people watching him on their television screens must have been struck with the plain, unadorned residences of both President Rivlin and PM Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
On February 15, 2017 PM Netanyahu was the fourth foreign leader to visit the Trump White House. Following their talks, President Trump started off the joint press conference by reiterating that one of the worst deals he had seen was the Iran nuclear deal. He then stated that he rejects the “unfair and one-sided actions at the United Nations” that target Israel. He was referring to UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israel’s settlement policy. Nonetheless, looking at Mr. Netanyahu, he said:
“As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out. But I would like to see a deal be made. I think a deal will be made…
And only after PM Netanyahu mentioned a great opportunity for peace coming from a regional approach, from involving Israel’s newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians, Mr. Trump said:
“And we have been discussing that, and it is something that is very different, hasn’t been discussed before. And it’s actually a much bigger deal, a much more important deal, in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory. So, I didn’t know you were going to be mentioning that, but that’s — now that you did, I think it’s a terrific thing and I think we have some pretty good cooperation from people that in the past would never, ever have even thought about doing this. So, we’ll see how that works…”
Mr. Netanyahu had only words of support for the President and he projected the Netanyahus and the Trumps as one big family.
The atmospherics of President Trump’s visit to Jerusalem on May 22 were no different. Every step was a display of the very special relationship between the two leaders, two families and of course the two countries.
Shortly after Air Force One touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport, President Rivlin delivered the first welcoming remarks. He said: “We are happy to see America is back in the area, America is back again.” Perhaps this was a reference to what may be defined as Israel’s perception of the “absence of American leadership” during the Obama years at the end of which it was agreed, nonetheless, that Israel would receive, under a landmark agreement, 38 billion dollars-worth of American military assistance over the next decade, the largest such aid package in US history.
The lavish words of praise he heaped on President Trump aside, here are the more significant lines from the remarks PM Netanyahu made on different occasions during the visit:
“I want you to know how much we appreciate the change in American policy on Iran, which you enunciated so clearly just an hour ago.
“The Arab leaders who you met yesterday could help change the atmosphere, and they could help create the conditions for a realistic peace.
“President Trump, working with you, I believe we can advance a durable peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, as well as the Palestinians, because of the common danger that the Arab world and Israel face from Iran, and because of the leadership that you bring to this process…”
And here are some quotes from President Trumps speeches and remarks:
“In my visit to Saudi Arabia, I met with many leaders of the Arab and Muslim world, including King Salman, who treated us so beautifully and really wants to see great things happen for the world. He really does. I got to know him well, and he really does.
“These leaders voiced concerns we all share — about ISIS, about Iran’s rising ambitions and rolling back its gains, and about the menace of extremism that has spread through too many parts of the Muslim world…
“… I believe that a new level of partnership is possible and will happen — one that will bring greater safety to this region, greater security to the United States, and greater prosperity to the world. This includes a renewed effort at peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I thank the Prime Minister for his commitment to pursuing the peace process…
“As I have repeatedly said, I am personally committed to helping Israelis and Palestinians reach that mutual commitment comprehensive peace agreement, and I had a great meeting this morning with President Mahmoud Abbas and I can tell you that he is ready to reach a peace deal.”
“Making peace will not be easy. We all know that. Both sides will face tough decisions. But with determination, compromise on both sides, and the belief that peace is possible, Israelis and Palestinians can make a deal. But even as we work toward peace, we will build strength to defend our nations.”
In welcoming Mr. Trump in Bethlehem, President Mahmoud Abbas restated the Palestinian position. He said:
“Mr. President, once again we reassert to you our positions of accepting the two-state solution along the borders of 1967 — the state of Palestine with its capital as East Jerusalem, living alongside the state of Israel in peace and security and good neighborhood, as well as resolving the entire final status issues…”
And this was the essence of President Trump’s response:
“… I am committed to trying to achieve a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and I intend to do everything I can to help them achieve that goal. President Abbas assures me he is ready to work toward that goal in good faith. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised the same. I look forward to working with these leaders toward a lasting peace.
“I also look forward to working with President Abbas on other important matters, such as unlocking the potential of the Palestinian economy — which is having a very rough time — and building on our very positive counterterrorism efforts. (emphasis added)
“Several days ago in Saudi Arabia, I met with the leaders of the Muslim world and Arab nations from all across the region. It was an epic gathering. It was a historic event. King Salman of Saudi Arabia could not have been kinder, and I will tell you, he’s a very wise, wise man. I called on these leaders and asked them to join in a partnership to drive terrorism from their midst once and for all…
“… I also firmly believe that if Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, it will begin a process of peace all throughout the Middle East. And that would be an amazing accomplishment.”
The deal President Trump has referred to has been described by some analysts as the “outside-in” approach. In other words, Israel and Arab countries particularly the Gulf states, with support from Egypt and Jordan already enjoying diplomatic relations with Israel, would launch a process to normalize relations with Israel and this would help pave the way for the settlement of the Palestinian question. The countries Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to as Israel’s “newfound Arab partners” are the Sunni Gulf states whose selective cooperation with Israel has been an open secret for a good number of years. They share Israel’s perception of the Iranian threat. And, it is clear that for this future “deal”, President Trump will rely heavily on King Salman and also try to make it more attractive to the Palestinians through economic incentives.
Israeli-Palestinian peace will indeed be a game-changer for the Middle East and set an example for the resolution of other conflicts which have plagued the region for long. So, the Trump administration will now have to go into the specifics of the “deal” it has in mind; prove its mastery of the art of the deal and thus make history. However, using regional countries’ conflicts or conflicting interests with Iran to create momentum for Israeli-Palestinian peace is not the right approach. Iran is an important regional player and needs to be engaged rather than isolated.
King Salman is indeed a wise leader, one with great experience. Unfortunately, the suicide-bomber who was responsible for the horrific terrorist attack in Manchester was also named Salman. The coincidence is sadly symbolic of the divisions, contradictions and the challenges facing Muslim countries. Analyzing the distorted ideology which has turned twenty-two years old Salman Abedi, a native of Manchester, into a terrorist and defeating that ideology may be a broad responsibility for the international community. But leading the effort is primarily an obligation for the leaders of Muslim countries, including Iran.