The interview with U.S. President Donald Trump in the daily Israel Hayom newspaper published on Friday was astonishing. Only three weeks after he was sworn in, Trump made an elegant and near complete retreat from the positions he took during his campaign on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and has continued in the same safe direction of the traditional policies of every American president since 1967.
Trump expressed a desire for a permanent agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, explained in a logical and reasoned fashion why construction in the settlements would not aid in achieving such an agreement and called on Israel to act reasonably concerning the peace process.
When Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev declared in December after the UN Security Council resolution against the settlements that “Obama is history and now we have Trump,” she certainly never imagined that the new U.S. president would say what he did only a month and a half later.
Neither did the settler lobby in the media, Knesset and government. The Israeli right voted for Trump, but for now it seems what it got on the Palestinian issue is just a slightly more smiling version of Obama.
Trump’s statements are even more amazing because they were spoken just two hours before he had dinner with the publisher of the free Israel Hayom, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has said there is no such thing as a Palestinian people. The same Adelson who leaked before the dinner that he would ask Trump to abandon the two-state solution and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. This was certainly not the interview Adelson expected to read in the paper the following day, especially after he contributed $125 million to Trump’s election campaign.
Many on the Israeli right thought Trump’s victory was the equivalent of the arrival of the Messiah, and that now the road was paved to annexing the West Bank with the blessings of the White House. The problem is that the person who has the greatest influence on American policy in the Middle East is not Sheldon Adelson, but Rex Tillerson, the brand new Secretary of State, who was CEO of ExxonMobil and looks more like a 2017 model of James Baker. During his many years in the world of energy, Tillerson worked very closely with Arab nations, while it is doubtful if he ever met an Israeli during his career. The huge machinery of his State Department has gotten down to work, and this is clear too from the voices now coming out of the White House.
Over the past few days, the settlers’ leadership has been pressuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he is about to miss out on a historic opportunity in his Wednesday meeting with Trump, who is just waiting to hear what the premier has to say. They believe that if only Netanyahu tells Trump the two-state solution is no longer relevant, that he wants to build in all the settlements without limitations — then the president will accept that. It seems they have a bit of a lack of understanding about how international relations work, and how the U.S. administration works too. The problem is not Netanyahu’s determination, or lack thereof — the problem is reality.
Trump and Tillerson are motivated by their own interests. When they hear the messages coming from King Abdullah of Jordan, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia too, it has a much greater influence than the opinions of the Yesha Council of settlements. This is even before we take into account the messages from Russia and the European Union, not to mention briefings by the heads of the American intelligence and defense establishment on the implications the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have on the safety of thousands of American soldiers all over the Middle East.
At the meeting of the Israeli security cabinet scheduled for Sunday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett will try to pressure Netanyahu to finally retreat from his agreement of the establishment of a Palestinian state. Bennett’s goal is to convince Trump to put an end to the use of the phrase “two-state solution.” But this seems to be a lost cause now, as Trump — like all his predecessors in the White House — has placed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process high on his agenda.
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