The Israel-Palestine conflict is as hard as it gets – what can Donald Trump do to solve it?


This article was originally published in The Telegraph.

When Air Force One touches down at Ben-Gurion airport this morning, the Israeli leaders waiting on the tarmac will be deeply apprehensive about how the Trump circus will impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

In January, the Israeli coalition parties hoped the President would make their dreams come true – move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, condone settlement expansion in the West Bank and refrain from proposing new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations until the conditions are right.

Trump surprised Prime Minister Netanyahu at their first joint press conference in Washington with a specific request to “hold off on settlements”. The US Embassy move has been shelved. Expectations were raised but now they have been disappointed; many Israelis see this as evidence of a long injustice where Israel’s claim to Jerusalem is being ignored. Trump now wants a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians and sees no reason why an agreement can’t be reached, “none whatsoever”.

After initially ignoring the Palestinian leadership, Trump hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on 3 May where they engaged in a bout of mutual love bombing. Trump repeated his desire for a peace deal and Abbas said “with you Mr President, we have hope”.

Washington veterans are critical of Trump’s approach. He is vague about his goal and how to achieve it; he failed to properly endorse the two state-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Former US diplomats are extremely sceptical of what the Trump administration can achieve when more experienced, properly staffed and competent US administrations have fallen short.

But looking beyond the obstacles and the multiple political crises engulfing the Trump administration, there are four factors that offer hope that something substantive could be achieved.

Firstly all the regional players need strong ties with Trump and his team. He has worked this advantage well and quickly engaged with Egyptian President al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Saudi King. The Israelis and the Palestinians are currently unable to say no to him and herein lies a potential opportunity. The Israeli Prime Minister expressed his willingness last year to meet the Palestinian President without preconditions. Abbas has long been demanding significant concessions for such a meeting but dropped his demands after meeting Trump.

Secondly Trump has won favour with Arab States for trying to be what Obama was not. Now he needs to get something in return. He has shown he can be a President who stands by allies in the region and isn’t afraid to use force. He hit Assad for using chemical weapons when Obama failed to. He has stood by Egypt’s leaders when Obama deserted them. His administration wants to tighten sanctions on Iran when Obama pursued diplomacy. This is why Trump received such a warm reception in Riyadh but he needs to be clear this comes with a price. To make serious progress in the peace process Trump needs the Arab states to offer Israel steps towards normalisation in return for steps towards peace. He can’t sell and implement a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal without them.

Third, Trump is unpredictable and unforgiving. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will want to face his extreme twitter wrath and be blamed for destroying a new peace process. This could keep them involved longer than with a President who is more empathic and predictable.

Finally, Trump has no patience for the intricacies and complexities of tortuous negotiations. He will shun detail where his predecessors embraced it. He will be quick to view minor disagreements as game playing. This could help keep the process focused on the core principles and force the parties to implement areas of agreement.

It is just possible that Trump could convene a substantive meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu within months. There is real momentum behind the involvement of other regional leaders and a regional peace summit is possible. But the big question is what happens next: Does the current White House have the resources and stamina to see this project through or will its chaotic operation inhibit real progress?

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are playing along nicely, but behind the smiles there is real nervousness. Trump is a novice at statecraft and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as hard as it gets. As we have seen in the past, false hope carries a heavy cost. It raises expectations and can lead to upheaval and violence when those hopes are shattered.

James Sorene is CEO of BICOM.