President Trump expressed optimism Wednesday that he can succeed where past American presidents have failed and secure a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but he made no promises that peace would mean an independent Palestinian state.
With Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by his side, Trump confidently said that if the two parties are willing, he wants to help.
“I’m committed to working with Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement. But any agreement cannot be imposed by the United States or by any other nation,” Trump said. “The Palestinians and Israelis must work together to reach an agreement that allows both peoples to live, worship, and thrive and prosper in peace.”
Absent was any mention of a sovereign Palestine, long a bedrock of American and international peacemaking efforts, or how he would address other festering issues that have sundered past efforts at negotiations such as the fate of Jerusalem.
Abbas ticked through the usual list of Palestinian demands for peace, including a sovereign state based on the borders as they existed in 1967 before Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Peace based on a “two-state solution” would permit wider Arab diplomatic recognition of Israel and aid in the fight against extremist movements such as the Islamic State, Abbas asserted.
“Our strategic option, our strategic choice, is to bring about peace based on the vision of the two states, a Palestinian state, with its capital of East Jerusalem, that lives in peace and stability with the state of Israel,” Abbas said through an interpreter.
In his brief public remarks with Abbas, Trump did not mention Jewish home-building in the occupied West Bank, something past presidents have made sure to reference, if only obliquely, as an impediment to peace. And he said nothing about his pledge to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a symbolic shift that Arab leaders including Jordan’s King Abdullah II have warned Trump could wreck a chance for peace.
Trump must notify Congress by June 1 if he, like past US presidents, intends to seek a deferral of a US law mandating the embassy move. Former US officials and analysts in the United States and Israel said Trump is nearly certain to seek the delay.
For Abbas, a White House invitation so early in the administration is seen as a coup and a sign that Trump is serious about negotiations that would help give the veteran Palestinian leader credibility at home and a mandate abroad.
“This is a lifesaver,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian peace negotiator who is now a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Since the collapse of the last talks, Abbas has been marginalized and the Palestinian issue is seen as not relevant,” as other conflicts and crises took precedence, Omari said. “He needs this for his own centrality.”
The 82-year-old leader heads the moderate Palestinian government in the West Bank but claims to likewise speak for Palestinians under the rule of the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Trump has talked with Abbas by phone, but their White House meeting was their first face-to-face encounter. “We believe that we are capable and able to bring about success to our efforts, because, Mr. President, you have the determination and you have the desire,” Abbas said.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer later said that Trump had raised the issue of Palestinian payments to the families of suicide bombers and prisoners who harm Israeli civilians. Israel has recently highlighted the issue as an obstacle to talks, and a group of Republican senators has introduced legislation to cut off American aid.
The Trump administration has yet to articulate a clear strategy for engaging in any negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, leaving vague whether the goal of peace might be defined as a version of the de facto Israeli control that now exists.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first foreign leaders to visit Trump this spring, and the new US administration has repeatedly underscored its close bond with the Israeli leader. Trump may visit Israel later this month, Israeli and former US officials said.
The administration has additionally signaled that it will not denounce Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, although Trump told Netanyahu publicly that he would prefer a hiatus as a way to foster peace talks.
In any case, the biggest sign of change in the Trump approach to Israel and potential peace is the omission of formerly rote language promising Palestinian sovereignty as the goal of negotiations.
“The Jedi mind trick here is to shift the definition of peace away from the conventional notion of a two-state solution,” said Frank Lowenstein, a chief US negotiator during the last failed peace effort in 2013 and 2014. “Redefining peace so you say you are 100 percent in support of peace…but the Palestinians don’t have their own state in the traditional sense.”
When Netanyahu visited the White House earlier this year, Trump mused about either a one- or two-state outcome, saying that he “could live with” either.
On Wednesday, Trump cast the United States in a more intermediary role.
“I will do whatever is necessary to facilitate the agreement, to mediate, to arbitrate anything they’d like to do, but I would be a mediator or an arbitrator or a facilitator,” Trump said.
Trump sent his Middle East envoy, former real estate lawyer Jason Greenblatt, to Jerusalem and Ramallah in March to explore the possibility of a US role in a peace process. The visit appeared to be well received by both sides. Trump likewise named his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his point man for peace efforts in the Middle East.
“Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Let’s see if we can prove them wrong, okay?” he said.
Jeremy Ben Ami, president of J Street, which describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace, said American leadership can help, but is not enough.
“The biggest roadblock is the lack of political will,” said Ben Ami. “It’s not just the Palestinians. It’s the Israelis as well. There’s a real question of whether or not the government of Israeli is ready and willing to move to two states, and whether the Palestinian government has the capacity and the will to do it.”