Opinion

A White House at War With Itself Can’t Make Peace in the Middle East

Hopes that President Donald Trump might be able to achieve the ‘ultimate deal’ between Israel and the Palestinians is a misplaced fantasy given the current chaos in his administration

U.S. President Donald Trump in Lynchburg, Virginia, May 13, 2017.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP

There may never have been a week of greater psychological disconnect between Washington and Jerusalem. In Israel, leaders across the political spectrum have twisted themselves into anxious knots anticipating President Donald Trump’s arrival on May 22 – watching, waiting and worrying about what message he will carry, and how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should respond.  

On the Israeli right that forms the governing coalition, the nervousness is palpable. Those who prematurely hailed Trump’s election as their salvation, who believed his campaign promises to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and drew hope when he refrained from advocating a two-state solution, are disturbed by growing signs of backtracking.

Fear mounts that the more moderate, conventional rhetoric coming out of foreign policy surrogates like U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster will be echoed by Trump when he arrives and harden into policy. A public campaign has been launched to pressure Trump into allowing an embassy move to happen.

On the other side of the political map, members of the opposition are drawing hope from the same events, dusting off their Kerry-era peace plans in readiness. MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), who has become cozy with Trump peace envoy Jason Greenblatt, was quoted as saying she thinks Israel has “a huge opportunity” in Trump. “We have a president who thinks big and addresses the hard core,” one who is “not beating around the bush,” she declared. They are encouraged by reports that Trump could indeed use his visit to make an Obama-esque declaration of support for the right of the Palestinians to dignity and self-determination – possibly an explicit call for an independent Palestinian state – as are the Palestinians themselves.

One can’t really blame Israeli leaders for their reactions. After all, in a normal world, an American president’s words, positions and stated policy should be taken seriously, at face value, and statements by his top foreign policy staff seen as reflecting a carefully coordinated effort and reflecting the president’s own views.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, May 2, 2017.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

But, as anyone in Washington will tell you these days, nothing is normal in the corridors of power. What has played out over the past week, following the stunning firing of FBI Director James Comey, should hammer home a resounding message to Israelis and Palestinians alike: proceed with extreme caution.

It is not business as usual inside the Beltway. If it were, conversations on “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation” this weekend would also have focused on foreign policy fine-tuning ahead of the president’s first overseas trip. Instead, the discussions were all about special prosecutors and obstruction of justice, and even impeachment, with Watergate comparisons the order of the day.

Of particular interest to Israelis should be the “loyalty oath” Trump reportedly asked Comey to take when he was summoned to a White House dinner in January – a vow Trump seemed to feel the former FBI director violated by remaining steadfast in his determination to get to the truth when it came to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.

The Comey affair shows that Trump is incapable of distinguishing between his own personal interests and those of the country he is presumably leading.

U.S. Ambassador David Friedman, who arrives in Israel on Monday, is preparing the ground for Trump’s Israel visit, reportedly advising its leaders, first and foremost, to “refrain from getting into confrontations with the president and to help him implement his Middle Eastern policies.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, May 2, 2017.
Susan Walsh/AP

Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondents have said Friedman repeatedly “stressed that given Trump’s strong desire to make the ‘ultimate deal’ on the peace process, Israel must cooperate with his diplomatic initiative and help it succeed.”

Security for Israel, political rights for Palestinians and building a better future for both peoples clearly won’t be the end goal of what is being formulated: The main purpose will be achieving a “win” for Donald Trump.

Israel enters a Trump-sponsored, ego-driven peace effort at its own peril. This is beginning to become obvious to those on Netanyahu’s right – both in Habayit Hayehudi and those on the right flank of his own Likud party, who are already distancing themselves from the U.S. president.

But what of those who are clearly yearning to get a peace process going at any cost? Should the Israeli center-left not offer support to a Trump-led effort to bring the Palestinians and Israelis to the table, and support for Netanyahu if he agrees to go along with it?

It is all too tempting to say yes. Hesitating to participate in any kind of diplomatic initiative, especially one led by the United States – which offers hope to end our bloody conflict and the corrosive occupation – seems wrong for both Israelis and Palestinians. Any hope at a U.S.-led effort should theoretically be grabbed, no matter what the party affiliation of the U.S. president offering it.

All true. Yet it must be recognized that this isn’t an issue of political partisanship, but of competence and reliability: Donald Trump in his current state simply isn’t capable of bringing peace to Israel.

Anyone who has followed the numerous U.S.-led peace efforts by many presidents knows that the process is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes calm determination, patience, consistency and a steady hand and eye for detail – none of which this president or his administration possess. It also requires discretion, which seems impossible with an administration that leaks like a sieve.

Most of all, though, it requires credibility. Trump, at least for the moment, appears to be a frustrated and angry president, continually lashing out, making his own staffers look, as The New York Times put it, like “liars” or “fools.”

Chaos reigns in Trump World, and the Middle East has enough homegrown chaos and shortsighted, destructive leaders that there is no need to import more from abroad. No matter how elaborate one’s fantasy might be that this renegade leader might just be the out-of-the-box solution to break the Middle East stalemate, it remains precisely that: sheer fantasy.

Until the president puts out the fire burning in his own house, foreign nations with any common sense – including Israel – must beware of placing their trust, security and future in his hands.