October 24, 2018

What will the 101-Day President Trump ask of the 12-year President Abbas?

The first 100 days were a disappointment. President Trump’s scorecard is mediocre at best. This is a good time to remember that presidents have more than fourteen hundred days in a term. Trump did not use the first 100 wisely. He can still recover, though, and still have great achievements.

Next week, as the not-yet-experienced President meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, 12 years in office with no end in sight, it is not yet clear which Trump plans to appear at the meeting – the boasting first-100-days President Trump, aiming for the moon and achieving little, or a more modest and realistic 101st-day President Trump, a president that has already felt the taste of failure and already knows that he cannot necessarily outdo President Obama on every issue.

The Palestinians who came to Washington to prepare the meeting with Trump gave their counterparts the impression that they are hopeful and trusting. In preparatory meetings in Ramallah there seemed to be agreement that the Palestinians have little to lose from letting Trump take them and Israel for a ride. Much like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Abbas does not want to pick an unnecessary fight with an unpredictable president.

Count this as an achievement of the first 100 days: Trump made the kind of impression on other leaders that now makes them more hesitant in dealing with him. He made a good impression by bombing Syria and clarifying that the further erosion of America’s deterrence power is unacceptable to him. He made a bad impression by, well, being himself. One day, when Trump writes his memoir, he will argue that this was a well-planned strategy pursued by him in his first 100 days – a strategy whose aim is to make everybody else nervous about him.

Maybe it’s a strategy. It’s more likely a personal trait. Trump will not be the first person to craft a strategy or formulate an ideology as a way of justifying and explaining the actions that he was taking because of his instinctive tendencies.

So yes, the Palestinians are a little nervous. Trump can easily ask them to take measures that will not be easy for them – such as quitting their habit of assisting the families of terrorists. Israel suggested that he do just that, so as not to make Israel the only party that has to accept American demands prior to the beginning of talks. But the Palestinian negotiators are also expectant. One of the options they raised with their American counterparts could appeal to Trump. They proposed that the President ask both Abbas and Netanyahu to submit their bargaining positions within a certain amount of time.

Not that there is any chance that these positions will be any closer than they were five or ten years ago. But the Palestinians are shrewd enough to understand that Netanyahu – if asked by Trump to present a plan – will be stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he would not want to be seen as the obstacle to peace by presenting a plan that is far less compromising than the plans presented by his predecessors. On the other hand, presenting a plan that meets the President’s expectations could destroy his fragile coalition.

For Trump to turn his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at this time – on top of all other world crises that he has to deal with (with North Korea at the top of the list) – would be unwise. Politically, it would buy him zero support as far as American voters are concerned. Strategically, it is dealing with small change. Yes, some leaders in the Middle East want this. But these leaders will bail and run and hide when their vocal public support is needed to convince the Palestinians to accept a reasonable deal. They are unlikely to do for Trump what they did not do for Bill Clinton. And if they do, it would not be because they want a deal between Israel and Palestine – it is because they want Trump to deter Iran.

His chances of success are slim. The old Trump – the first-100-days Trump did not care about such things. The new Trump – if there is a new Trump on day 101, one who’s moving forward to a more stable and fruitful 100 days – could change his calculation. It will not even be difficult. All he must do is show that the two sides are not truly interested in a realistic deal – they aren’t – and quit the effort citing more urgent priorities.

But for now, Trump isn’t scaling down his rhetoric on the conflict. He wants – breathe deeply! – a “conflict-ending Israeli-Palestinian deal” (will he end global warming and cure cancer for the same price?).

What will Israel do if and when Trump begins to apply pressure on Netanyahu? On some issues, Israel is going to surrender; on other issues it is going to delay, possibly by having a round of elections that puts everything on hold for a while. The over-eagerness of Secretary John Kerry was annoying but quite pathetic. The over-eagerness of the erratic President Trump is more problematic. This is the reason that many senior people in the Netanyahu government wanted Hillary Clinton – a person with which Israel could have an honest, predictable, realistic, even if not always easy, discussion – to win the election. This is the reason that senior people in the Israeli government are also hoping for a 101st-day president who’s somewhat different from the one we saw in the first 100 days.