2017-03-29 / Mideast

Trump the change agent looks traditional on Mideast peace


President Donald Trump attending meeting in the White House, March 13. JTA photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images. President Donald Trump attending meeting in the White House, March 13. JTA photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images. WASHINGTON—Trump administration rhetoric about Israeli-Palestinian peace is typical of a president who would make everything great: President Donald Trump is going to bring about a “historic” deal, the White House has said, one that would “reverberate positively throughout the region and the world.”

What isn’t typical, at least for a president who has shattered conventions in so many other sectors, is how typically Trump is going about reviving talks.

Jason Greenblatt, a real estate lawyer and trusted longtime adviser to Trump, was in the region drumming up interest in new talks, and he was partying like its 1989:

Press Israel to limit settlement building? Check.

Emphasize economic capacity-building for the Palestinians? Check.

Talk about a grand deal involving the surrounding Arab Sunni states? Check.

Except for the hyperbole, the statements that emerged from Greenblatt’s “listening” tour of the region could have been lifted from boilerplate dating back to the administration of George H. W. Bush, the first president to get Israelis and Palestinians into the same room, and through his successors, including Bill Clinton, Bush’s son and Barack Obama.

“I have a lot of differences with this administration on a lot of issues, but on the issue of Israel and Palestinians they have been probably more cautious and more responsible than on almost any other issue,” Daniel Shapiro, who was the Obama administration envoy to the region from 2011 until January, said in an interview.

“It’s striking to hear quite similar language in describing their approach, their goals, their understanding of the relationship between the issue of settlements and prospects for success in negotiations,” said Shapiro, who is now a senior visiting fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Trump’s pro-Israel supporters hailed his election as an opportunity to reset the relationship between the two countries. Israel’s right crowed after his victory, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett saying it was a chance for Israel to “retract the notion of a Palestinian state.”

Settlements were a key bone of contention between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, culminating in December when the U.S. allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass an anti-settlements resolution.

Nothing quite so contentious has emerged yet in the Trump-Netanyahu relationship, but it hasn’t disappeared, either. Trump straight out asked Netanyahu to hold off on settlement building for a while when they met at a White House summit, and Greenblatt raised the issue in his five-hour meeting with Netanyahu.

“With respect to settlements, we see them as a challenge that needs to be addressed at some point,” Marc Toner, the State Department spokesman, said.

Other differences in tone and emphasis are emerging between the

Trump and Netanyahu a governments.

After Greenblatt met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a U.S. readout of the meeting said they “reaffirmed the commitment of both the Palestinian Authority and the United States to advance a genuine and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Notably, Netanyahu—who has made no secret of his preference for Trump over Obama—has spent the three years since the collapse of the last round of talks saying Abbas appears anything but committed to advancing peace.

Jewish officials who favor the new administration’s Israel posture say they see a difference in how Trump and his team emphasize the need for Abbas to tamp down Palestinian incitement, particularly the payments handed out by the Palestinian Authority to families of imprisoned or killed terrorists.

“President Abbas committed to preventing inflammatory rhetoric and incitement,” the meeting readout said.

But the notion that Obama downplayed incitement was always something of a myth. Obama and his top officials repeatedly decried incitement, as recently as his farewell speech to the United Nations in September. Those calls, however, tended to receive less media coverage than his tensions with Netanyahu.

There are some differences of tone— most dramatically in how Trump has retreated from explicitly endorsing the two-state solution.” 

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