Opinion

For 40 Years, I’ve Fought for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. But a Trump-brokered Deal? No Thanks

No Israeli-Palestinian deal sullied by Donald Trump's fingerprints can be trusted, because the man himself can’t be trusted and neither can his word

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a press conference in the East Room of the White House May 18, 2017 in Washington, DC
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a press conference in the East Room of the White House May 18, 2017 in Washington, D.C. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

I’ve been an unapologetic, indefatigable peacenik for more than 30 years, advocating, agitating, writing, and lobbying for the United States to use its power and influence to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Yet I do not want Donald Trump to come home with a deal.

I haven’t given up on the peace process. I’ve given up on this president -because I want the two-state solution to succeed.

Some center-left American Jewish leaders are giving Trump the benefit of the doubt – no doubt a wishful fantasy fueled by years of frustrated longing for peace. For me, it all boils down to trust.

No deal brokered by Trump can be trusted because the man himself can’t be trusted and neither can his word. A chronic liar with a long, sleazy record of hyperbolic claims, unfulfilled contracts, and bungled projects —Trump university, airline, casinos, vodka, steaks, mortgages, marriages, and bankruptcies, not to mention his health plan – Trump’s actions are driven by ego and self-interest rather than practical objectives or lofty ideals.

I can’t trust the intentions of a man who once asked Israel if he could stage a beauty pageant on Masada, the ancient site of a Jewish rebellion and mass suicide. I can’t trust the president who took months to denounce a rash of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, could not seem to understand why omitting explicit mention of Jews on Holocaust Memorial Day might hurt our feelings, and now has budgeted 15 minutes to tour Yad Vashem in Jerusalem next week, fifteen minutes for the Six Million.

If, after his two-day visit, Trump takes credit for brokering progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, his claim would be suspect, regardless of its particulars, simply by virtue of its association with him. And now that a Special Counsel is looking into his campaign’s relationship with Russia, and the word “impeachment” is in the air, whatever “deal” he makes would be sullied by having his (very small) fingerprints on it.

Contrary to his braggadocio, there will be no “ultimate deal.” U.S. officials have been dialing down public expectations. But the man is a snake oil salesman so it’s easy to imagine him emerging from meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas (whom he will meet individually, not together as had been hoped) crowing about “unbelievable” breakthroughs and “fantastic” concessions” that no one else on the planet could have achieved. And by the way, he won the electoral vote. 

It’s also easy to imagine him leaving the region empty-handed, murmuring, “Nobody knew peace negotiations could be so complicated.” But anyone who knows anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is painfully aware that the issues — borders, refugees, security, Jerusalem – are dauntingly complicated and the parties preternaturally guarded and defensive. This does not bode well for a president who disdains nuance, prefers bite-size memos to thoughtful policy papers and gets most of his information from the bloviating hosts on cable TV.

Donald Trump doesn’t do his homework. He doesn’t read books. Apparently, he has never been curious enough to pick up a former president’s biography so he’s basically oblivious to his predecessors’ peacemaking pursuits - the 1991 Madrid conference convened by George H.W. Bush; or Bill Clinton’s role in the process that culminated in the 1993 handshake on the White House lawn where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin thundered, “Enough of blood and tears!”

I doubt he has a clue about why the Oslo Accord has disintegrated while blood and tears still flow. I bet he hasn’t studied the Wye River Memorandum, Camp David Summit, Clinton Parameters, or Taba documents, or checked out the Arab League Initiative, Road Map, Geneva Accord, ill-fated Olmert/Abbas negotiations, or wondered why John Kerry’s effort to revive the moribund peace process never bore fruit.

Trump may trust his gut feelings about Netayahu or Abbas but guts don’t make an informed interlocutor. What this stalled conflict needs is a long-distance driver who can anticipate the potholes on the path to peace. What we’re stuck with is a raving narcissist who can’t be bothered with policy details, routinely contradicts himself, and wiggles out of tight spots by distorting reality or throwing a staffer under the bus.

Even with a rational adviser like envoy Jason Greenblatt at his side, Trump’s natural inclination to engage in ad hominem insults and wild generalizations stunts the possibility of respectful, productive discourse.

Nevertheless, some of us on the left are keeping hope alive. We keep telling each other, “With Trump anything can happen,” as if this tawdry real estate huckster could pull a plump rabbit out of a crushed hat.  

Our steadfastness reminds me of the joke about the man who, day after day, month after month, davened energetically at the kotel, the Western Wall. Finally, a curious police officer asked him what was so urgent.

   “I’m praying for peace,” the man replied.

   “How’s it going,” asked the offer. 

   “It’s like talking to a wall.”

Since Trump loves walls and the Western (formerly Wailing) Wall is an iconic Jewish site, few were surprised when an unprecedented stop at the Kotel appeared on his itinerary. Given the volatile politics of the place, this choice seems ill advised and potentially incendiary.  Remember what happened when another controversial leader, Ariel Sharon, visited the Temple Mount.  I’m not suggesting Trump’s visit will ignite a third intifada, but Palestinians are tired of suffering. Indignity, injustice, and despair can turn helplessness into rage. With the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike in its second month, the Arab street is ripe for provocation.

No other sitting President has ever visited the Wall for good reason: U.S. policy holds that, pending Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Jerusalem’s final status remains unresolved. Ditto for international law. But this fact is not something diplomats usually say out loud. Only peace and justice activists expressly articulate the view that Jerusalem’s future has yet to be negotiated by Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of shared sovereignty and the establishment of two capitals for two states.

Maybe Trump was unaware of U.S. policy but surely his advisors were. Or maybe he knew and didn’t care because it was more important to score points with the Orthodox Jewish establishment and right-wing nationalists. It’s hard to believe he was shocked —shocked!—when it was revealed that a senior U.S. official told an Israeli official that the Western Wall is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.”  

Which raises the question, can Netanyahu trust Trump? 

The President broke his promise to immediately move the U.S. to Jerusalem, which most thoughtful observers in both countries took as good news but die-hard Jewish nationalists viewed as betrayal. 

As a candidate, Trump often said, “There is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel.” Before David Friedman was named ambassador, he promised that, “friendship between the U.S. and Israel is going to... be better than ever before.” President Trump vowed to be more “pro-Israel” than his predecessor and frequently endorsed Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish State.

Who could have predicted that one of this President’s minions would call the city “disputed” territory? Who could have guessed that the tough-talking conservative Republican who was supposed to double down on Israel’s security would be caught leaking classified Israeli intelligence to Russia, ally of Iran, the pre-eminent threat to Israel’s very existence? Talk about irony.

Bibi Netanyahu, the consummate political survivor, and Israel’s forever- aspiring Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, have been downplaying Trump’s missteps in a bald display of hypocrisy genuflecting to power.

Meanwhile, former Mossad spymasters, Shabti Shavit and Danny Yotam, have offered scathing critiques of Trump’s security breach. Mincing no words, Shavit called the American president “an elephant in a china shop.”

If the past is predictive, our marauding Republican elephant will take credit for whatever he can spin into a win.  He will launch a fusillade of self-referential Tweets, posture at photo ops, and cockily sign a few papers. He will remind us again that he won the electoral vote.

So what? you may say, as long as he delivers. But if people don’t trust the delivery man, why would they accept the package or believe what he says is in it?  

Israelis and Palestinians have at least one thing in common: they’re not stupid.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founder of Ms. Magazine, is the author of eleven books, most recently the novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. A past Chair of Americans for Peace Now and a co-founder of The International Center for Peace in the Middle East, she frequently writes about Israel-Palestine.