Trump Tells Israelis: Arab Leaders Ready to Take Steps Toward Israel if Peace Process Gains Pace

Netanyahu voices willingness to cooperate with U.S. president on advancing peace, but hardly mentions Palestinians in public remarks and focuses on Arab states instead

Netanyahu shake hands after delivering press statements prior to an official dinner in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017.
Netanyahu shake hands after delivering press statements prior to an official dinner in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017. /AFP

The Arab leaders U.S. President Donald Trump met with Sunday are willing to take steps toward Israel if the Israeli-Palestinian peace process makes progress, Trump told Israeli leaders Monday, a senior Israeli official told Haaretz.

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The official, who requested anonymity, is familiar with the details of Trump’s talks with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.

Trump stressed that all the Arab leaders who were at the Riyadh summit, and especially Saudi King Salman, raised the Palestinian issue with him, the official said. They also told him they wanted to see progress on the peace process and expressed a willingness to help.

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“Trump spoke incessantly about his meetings in Saudi Arabia and said that the Arab world wants peace, and that he thinks so does Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,” the Israeli official said.

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Trump delivered a similar message in the public remarks he and Netanyahu made before dining together Monday evening.

“In my visit to Saudi Arabia, I met with many leaders of the Arab and Muslim world, including King Salman,” Trump said. “These leaders voiced concerns we all share – about ISIS, about Iran’s rising ambitions and rolling back its gains, and about the menace of extremism that has spread through too many parts of the Muslim world ....

“I believe that a new level of partnership is possible and will happen – one that will bring greater safety to this region .... This includes a renewed effort at peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I thank the prime minister for his commitment to pursuing the peace process .... It’s not easy.  I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all, but I have a feeling that we’re going to get there eventually, I hope.”

Trump also talked about his visit to Saudi Arabia at the start of his meeting with Rivlin, telling the Israeli president that all the Arab and Muslim leaders he met in Riyadh showed a positive attitude toward Israel, citing a shared interest in blocking the Iranian threat in light of the nuclear agreement with Tehran.

“What happened with Iran has brought many of the other parts of the Middle East toward Israel .... I’ve seen such a different feeling toward Israel from countries that, as you know, were not feeling so well about Israel not so long ago,” Trump said. “That is a real positive. It is a challenge and an opportunity. You have a great opportunity.”

Netanyahu, in both his speech welcoming Trump at Ben-Gurion Airport Monday and his pre-dinner remarks that evening, voiced a willingness to cooperate with Trump in advancing a peace agreement. But he made almost no mention of the Palestinians, focusing instead on the Arab states.

“I also look forward to working closely with you to advance peace in our region, because you have noted so succinctly that common dangers are turning former enemies into partners,” Netanyahu said in his pre-dinner remarks. “And that’s where we see something new and potentially something very promising. 

“It won’t be simple.  But for the first time in many years – and, Mr. President, for the first time in my lifetime – I see a real hope for change. The Arab leaders who you met yesterday could help change the atmosphere, and they could help create the conditions for a realistic peace.”

At the airport, Netanyahu said Israel’s hand was extended in peace, including to the Palestinians. But in the same breath, he mentioned his conditions for peace with the Palestinians.

“The peace we seek is a genuine and durable one, in which the Jewish state is recognized, security remains in Israel’s hands and the conflict ends once and for all,” Netanyahu said. “Mr. President, you just flew from Riyadh to Tel Aviv. I hope that one day an Israeli prime minister will be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh.”

On Tuesday, Trump will meet with Abbas in Bethlehem. Senior White House officials said that during this meeting, Trump will voice support for the Palestinians’ right to dignity and self-determination.

Immediately after that, Trump will visit Yad Vashem and from there will go to the Israel Museum, where he will deliver the keynote speech of his visit to Israel. It is expected to focus on the American-Israeli alliance but also mention the peace process.

Before having dinner at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem Monday, Trump and Netanyahu had a working meeting in the capital’s King David Hotel. Much of this meeting was private, with no aides present.

At the start, Trump spoke at length about the big powers’ nuclear agreement with Iran and assailed his predecessor, Barack Obama.

“Iran should be very grateful to the United States. Iran negotiated a fantastic deal with the previous administration ... it is unbelievable,” Trump said.

“I think they would have totally failed within six months, we gave them a lifeline and we not only gave them a lifeline, we gave them wealth and prosperity. And we also gave them an ability to continue with terror … no matter where we go we see the signs of Iran in the Middle East,” he added.

“Instead of saying thank you to the United States, they now feel emboldened … it was a terrible, terrible thing for the United States to enter that deal. And believe me, Iran will never have a nuclear weapon, that I can tell you.”

Shortly afterward, during their joint press statements, Netanyahu praised Trump for the way he has changed America’s Middle East policies from those under Obama.

“I want you to know how much we appreciate the change in American policy on Iran, which you enunciated so clearly just an hour ago,” Netanyahu said. “I want you to know how much we appreciate your bold decision to act against the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  And I want to tell you also how much we appreciate the reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East.”