U.S. Ambassador Advises Israeli Officials: Trump's Serious About Peace, Work With Him

Israel shouldn't get into confrontations with Trump on peace initiative, David Friedman tells senior Israeli officials ■ Both Israel and Palestinians trying to influence Trump's speech in Masada

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U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during a swearing in ceremony hosted by Vice President Mike Pence at the Executive office in Washington, U.S., March 29, 2017.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman speaks during a swearing in ceremony hosted by Vice President Mike Pence at the Executive office in Washington, U.S., March 29, 2017.Credit: CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS

As Donald Trump’s visit to Israel approaches, both the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and its Palestinians counterpart in Ramallah are trying to figure out what proposal, if any, the U.S. president will bring with him. As of now, 10 days before his arrival, Trump still has no orderly plan to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but he does have a lot of enthusiasm, ambition and, above all, determination to push for a historic breakthrough.

The new American ambassador in Tel Aviv, David Friedman, has held quite a few conversations in recent weeks with diplomats and senior Israeli officials. In these conversations, he 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.

A senior Israeli official familiar with the messages Friedman has delivered, who asked to remain anonymous, said the ambassador termed Trump a great opportunity for Israel, someone who greatly wants to help the country, inter alia by achieving a peace agreement with the Palestinians. As evidence of this, Friedman noted that all the people Trump has appointed to deal with the Israel issue are graduates of Jewish religious schools.

Friedman’s advice to his Israeli interlocutors, the official added, was to refrain from getting into confrontations with the president and to help him implement his Middle Eastern policies.

Friedman is expected to arrive in Israel on Monday. The next day, he will go to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, together with the ambassadors of Spain and Thailand, to present his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin. He will then spend a week racing against the clock to finalize the preparations for Trump’s visit, on May 22.

This week, Friedman met with Trump to receive the president’s final instructions and his best wishes for his new job. Friedman’s own views differ utterly from the president’s on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but the new ambassador, whose loyalty to Trump is unassailable, intends to leave his personal opinions back home in America.

Two people who have spoken with Friedman, both of whom also asked to remain anonymous, told Haaretz that the new ambassador has given Trump his own assessment that the chances of achieving a peace deal are slim. Nor is Friedman the only senior official in the Trump administration to have told the president something of the sort, they added.

“Trump heard this from Friedman, from other people on his team, and also from people outside the White House whom he consulted,” one said, but the president evidently wasn’t in any hurry to be persuaded. “People whose opinion he respects told him it will be very hard, perhaps even impossible, but so far, he hasn’t changed his mind.”

Some figures in the Jewish-American right say that Friedman might have had greater influence over Trump’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had he been by the president’s side during his first weeks in office, when Trump was formulating his initial moves on the issue, like deferring his campaign promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem and posing a clear demand that Israel restrain construction in the settlements. But the ambassador’s lengthy Senate confirmation process prevented him from playing a role in the decision-making during that period.

“Had Friedman been in the White House at the beginning of the process, things might have happened differently,” said an official with one right-wing Jewish organization, who asked to speak “on background.”

“The problem is that during his confirmation hearings in the Senate, which lasted until late March, he was cut off from the day-to-day work. Essentially, he wasn’t a full partner during the administration’s first two months, when several of the most important decisions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue were made. During that period, Trump left former senior Obama administration officials in place.”

Friedman is more involved today, but in keeping with his promise at the confirmation hearings, he says he intends to implement the president’s policies even if they contradict the hawkish views he himself has expressed in the past. He told the Senate that if a peace deal were signed during his term as ambassador that required evacuating the West Bank settlement of Beit El, to which he has donated thousands of dollars, he would support it.

Despite the great tension in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem over the past two weeks, and the euphoria in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ office in Ramallah, Trump’s visit doesn’t seem likely to answer the riddle both sides have been trying to solve, which is how exactly the president plans to proceed. Netanyahu and his advisors had feared that Trump would use his visit to present his own principles for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to jump-start the negotiations, but those fears have abated a bit. A senior Israeli official said that so far, there hasn’t been any discussion about a three-way summit between Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas during the visit.

Three senior Israeli officials said that from their talks with various White House officials, they got the impression that Trump wants his visit to Israel to be as friendly and embracing as possible — to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Trump is expected to reiterate that he wants a “deal,” but primarily, he wants both leaders to tell him a bit more about what they propose.

The most important of Trump’s public remarks is expected to be the speech he plans to give at Masada. Two senior Israeli officials said that both Israel and the Palestinians are spending much of their time before Trump’s arrival in trying to influence the content of that speech.

The person responsible for this on the Israeli side is Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. One of the Israeli officials said Dermer believes the one achievement Israel must secure is a statement by Trump that “united Jerusalem” is Israel’s capital. In his talks with the White House, Dermer has focused on getting some such phrase into the speech.

Obtaining such a statement from the president has become even more important because it’s already clear to Netanyahu and his advisors that Trump doesn’t plan to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Rather, at the end of this month, Trump is expected to sign a presidential waiver of the law that mandates moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The day before he arrives in Israel, Trump will meet in Saudi Arabia with the leaders of more than 10 Arab and Muslim states, including Abbas. The purpose of this summit is to discuss ways of eliminating the Islamic State group, but the Israeli-Palestinian issue will presumably come up as well.

Trump’s entourage will include his peace-process envoy, Jason Greenblatt. He met most of the Arab states’ foreign ministers on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Amman two months ago, and the messages he heard from them about the Palestinian issue then are the same ones Trump is expected to hear from the Arab presidents, kings and princes in Saudi Arabia.

The day after Trump met Abbas in the White House last week, Greenblatt attended a meeting of Palestinian donor states in Brussels. He gave a speech in which he outlined the direction Trump plans to head.

“Since the beginning of his campaign, President Trump has made it very clear that he is personally committed to achieving peace throughout the Middle East, including a comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Greenblatt told the assembled representatives from dozens of countries. “President Trump recently hosted Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Washington, and just yesterday met with Palestinian President Abbas at the White House. I want you to know that both meetings were serious and constructive; both leaders expressed a sincere commitment to finding a way to move ahead.”

Greenblatt made it clear that Trump wants the United States and the international community to help Netanyahu and Abbas make progress toward peace, not to try to impose solutions on them.

Nevertheless, he added, this “means the leaders of both sides must have a vision of what peace means on the ground and then show leadership to bring their respective sides to that objective. As President Trump did previously with Prime Minister Netanyahu, yesterday, President Trump called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to be ready to make the compromises we all know are necessary if we are to obtain a peace that the peoples of both sides can believe in and take ownership of. President Trump also asked both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take steps to create a climate in which peace can take root.”

Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew, ended his speech in an unconventional way — with a reference to the Jewish liturgy.

“On Saturdays, the Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, it is customary in synagogues in the United States to say a prayer for the United States and for the State of Israel,” he said. “In the prayer for the State of Israel, we beseech God to spread the tabernacle of peace over Israel. So my friends, let us work together to spread the tabernacle of peace over Israelis and Palestinians and, God willing, over the troubled region around them.”

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