The new messiah and the old cynic: Notes on the Trump-Abbas meeting
President Donald Trump believes that bringing about peace between Israel and the Palestinians “is frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.” At least that’s what he said yesterday, when he was meeting with Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas at the White House. And he is right, of course: It is not difficult. If only the Palestinians accept what Israel offers – or if Israel agrees to what the Palestinians demand – a peace agreement could be signed.
It is interesting to contrast the upbeat optimism of Trump with the somber pessimism of the people involved in this process. When Israelis were asked in April by the IDI “Do you believe or not believe that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will lead in the coming years to peace between Israel and the Palestinians?” less than a quarter of them said they “moderately” or “strongly” believe that peace is coming.
So maybe Trump knows something they don’t know (that’s possible, something might be happening that is still a secret). Or he might understand something that they don’t understand (because they are stuck in the past and he is the future). Or maybe it is all a game of make believe. Or maybe he is just being clueless – a clueless president with an ego to match.
Trump presented no plan for peace yesterday – at least not to the public. Maybe a not-so-difficult peace doesn’t even necessitate a plan, maybe the details are left for others, or maybe he was presenting a plan to Abbas behind closed doors. But more likely: Trump is the plan. Trump believes that him being there, instead of his incapable predecessors, will be enough to make a difference. Trump assumes that his deal-maker persona will be enough to broker a deal that has eluded Israelis and many of their neighbors for more than a century.
Does he remind you of someone? Perhaps one of his predecessors? Perhaps his immediate predecessor?
For one to become the president of the United States, one must have a large ego – one must hold to the belief that one’s personality and leadership skills can bring about change. So the fact that Trump has an ego – and that President Obama had an ego – is not a condemnable offense. An ego becomes problematic when it prevents a president from also being realistic. When it is so large that it blocks the view. When Obama believed that the force of his personality could change realities that had eluded his predecessors for so many years, his critics called him messianic. This is not a bad description for a president who not only believes in bringing about a peace agreement but also believes that thanks to his not-yet-clear policies “hopefully there won’t be such hatred for very long.”
The president said: “any agreement cannot be imposed by the United States, or by any other nation.” This is what Israel wants to hear. Because the Palestinians surely cannot force Israel to agree to their demands.
The President said: “We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done. It’s been a long time, but we will be working diligently. And I think there’s a very, very good chance, and I think you feel the same way.” The Palestinian leadership hopes that if Trump truly wants it Israel will be hesitant to stand in his way. On the other hand, if it’s not so difficult – why the need to work so hard?
The president called the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin “a courageous peacemaker.” That’s interesting. Most Israelis believe that the deal Rabin signed was a mistake. He was indeed a courageous leader, but the deal was a mistake. Making him the model to look up to was an interesting choice for Trump and his team. And I assume it was not an accidental choice.
President Abbas did not show any sign of readiness to moderate his positions. “Our strategic choice is to bring about peace based on the vision of the two-state – a Palestinian state with its capital of East Jerusalem that lives in peace and stability with the state of Israel based on the borders of 1967.” Or maybe he did. By saying “based on” the 1967 line – namely, by agreeing to show some flexibility about the line. Or by saying “I also believe that we will be able to resolve the issue of the refugees and the issue of the prisoners” and hinting that he is ready to accept a creative formula for the refugees other than the nonstarter “right of return.”
Abbas – like Netanyahu – does not really know what President Trump wants and how high on his agenda the Israeli-Palestinian issue is going to be. He is playing for time. Trying not to contradict or annoy the president, trying to take advantage of this ego of his. Abbas is no less of a cynic about the American effort than most Israelis. But he is no less cautious about revealing his cynicism than their leaders.
The President does not have a plan that we can talk about – he did not even say the words “Palestinian State” – so his ultimate goal is an agreed-upon solution. Agreed upon by whom? By Israel and the Palestinians. And what if they disagree, as they are likely to? The President says a solution cannot be imposed on them.
Something’s got to give.
Either the president is serious about his no-imposition policy. In such case, the most likely outcome of the current process is neglect.
Or he is serious about having an agreement. In such case he will have to apply pressure – namely, to impose his prescribed ideas on one or both parties.