He visited Riyadh, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. As each stop approached in his Middle Eastern tour, the suspense in Israel grew and the anticipation increased. When will the major announcement be made? When will the new peace plan be introduced? When will the big surprise be revealed? And then he flew back home.
For several months, Israelis were speculating about US President Donald Trump’s next steps regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Each statement by the American president was amplified and analyzed: Trump is serious, Trump is determined, Trump is invested. That had become a common belief.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and Israel was an opportunity to bring some certainty into the debate. However, if there is one key takeaway from the visit, it is that for the new president, regional security is the top priority in the region, not the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.
Whether it was in his speech in Riyadh, his remarks in Bethlehem or his statements in Jerusalem, Trump spoke a similar language – it is time to fight terror, defeat extremism and contain Iran.
Toward these goals he signed gigantic arm deals with the Saudis, called for the establishment of a new regional security partnership and urged the different peoples of the region to join hands and promote their shared interests.
In Israel, the messages regarding regional security had some additional components and twists – a pledge to defend Israel at international organizations, a commitment to prevent a nuclear Iran and a promise to continue the special bond between Israel and the United States. Trump also emphasized the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people and told the Israeli public that their prime minister was a man of peace.
Trump echoed Benjamin Netanyahu’s talking points to the probable delight of the Israeli prime minister, who was also content with what Trump chose not to – at least publicly – say: The American president did not refer to the two-state solution; he did not mention the Palestinians’ right to self-determination; he did not criticize Israel over settlement expansion; he did not call on Israel to show maps and define its borders.
Trump chose to speak about peace in general and ambiguous terms, in a more religious than national context. Should the three monotheistic religions be able to cooperate, he claimed, then world peace – including between Israelis and Palestinians – might just be around the corner. He also identified the enemies of peace – Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – and made clear that he was not in the business of moderating extremists, engaging with Iran or exploring Hamas’s new policy document. He wanted to defeat them. His words on Iran were welcomed by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and his words on Hamas pleased Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu was happy about both.
Trump spelled out regional enemies and threats but kept vague on regional opportunities for peace. In fact, he ignored the most significant peace initiative out there – the Arab Peace Initiative (API).
Trump spoke in Saudi Arabia, the country that initiated the API. He spoke to leaders of Arab and Muslim countries that had adopted the API. He emphasized the need for multilateral efforts toward peace.
Yet he did not mention even once the offer that the Arab League made 15 years ago for normal diplomatic relations between Israel and all Arab states in return for peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors. The API, reaffirmed by the Arab League just two months ago, disappeared from Trump’s talking points, and no alternative plan for regional peace was introduced.
The Trump visit did not provide the much-needed clarity regarding the nature of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and its benefits.
It even challenged the limited clarity that does exist – clarity about American support for a two-state solution, and clarity about the API as a key regional incentive for peace that can provide Israel with additional benefits to those the Palestinians can deliver on their own.
Trump’s visit should serve as a wake-up call for other international actors who care about the peace process.
Lately, the international community is rather paralyzed regarding the peace process: Past initiatives have been shelved, and subsequently, no new initiatives have been put forth. All eyes are focused on the new American president and his statements about promoting peace.
The recent visit to the Middle East indicated that Trump might not be the savior of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as some believed. It is thus time for renewed international activism regarding the peace process, as exemplified by the resolution adopted by the European Parliament just before Trump’s visit, calling for a new European Union initiative to advance Israeli- Palestinian peace.
Despite their disappointment over a lack of progress toward peace during the visit, pro-peace actors – in Israel and beyond – can leverage three messages introduced by Trump during his visit that which contradict popular Israeli rightwing rhetoric: 1. While Netanyahu claims that a breakthrough in ties with the Arab world does not require progress on the Palestinian track, Trump emphasized that steps toward the Palestinians were needed for Israel to upgrade its regional ties.
2. While the Israeli government has been delegitimizing Abbas, Trump stressed that Abbas was a genuine partner for peace.
3. While right-wing Israelis present a dichotomous approach, asking international actors to choose whether they are for Israel or against it, Trump made the case that there is no contradiction between being pro-Israel and pro-Arab.
Trump has gone in and out of three major cities in the Middle East. A major announcement was not made, a new peace plan was not introduced, and a big surprise was not revealed. But just as he departed, it was announced that his special envoy for the peace process was on his way to the region.
So maybe it will all happen the next time around?