In a meeting last month with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, U.S. President Donald Trump termed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the harder side to convince in his efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, according to seven Western and Israeli sources who were either present at or briefed on the meeting.
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“Trump said both leaders are problematic,” said one Western diplomat who was briefed on the meeting. “But the general context was that from the two of them, Netanyahu is the bigger problem.”
A senior White House official disputed the account of the meeting, saying, “This was a short but productive meeting that primarily focused on UN reforms and the great job [U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki] Haley has been doing. After discussing the United States’ defense of Israel at the UN, the participants quickly addressed the ongoing peace conversations. The president said that he feels both sides want to make peace and he remains optimistic about an enduring peace deal. We are focusing on our productive conversations and not on the noise created by spoilers.”
On September 19, Trump held a 15-minute meeting with Guterres on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. According to six Western diplomats and one former senior Israeli official, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, at least half of the meeting dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Trump, who had met with Netanyahu in New York the previous day, gave Guterres his impressions of that meeting and his own views on the peace process.
The Western diplomats said Trump reiterated to Guterres that he’s determined to try to advance a historic peace deal. He told Guterres that over the years, he had made many difficult deals, but he’d always heard that the hardest deal of all was Israeli-Palestinian peace, and he wanted to try to meet this challenge, according to one Western diplomat who was briefed on the meeting.
The Western diplomats said Trump also told Guterres that while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is very old – 82 – and suffers from domestic political problems, he needs a legacy to leave behind. Netanyahu, in contrast, understands that he’ll never have a president more understanding of Israel’s security needs, and therefore there’s a chance that he’ll agree to steps he hasn’t agreed to in the past, the president continued.
When he first took office, Trump added, he thought the chances of making a deal were very low. But in light of his aforementioned assessments of both Abbas and Netanyahu, he now thinks there’s a good chance of producing an agreement.
The Western diplomats said Guterres encouraged Trump to continue pushing for Israeli-Palestinian peace and stressed that he, too, thinks there’s an opportunity to reach a historic deal.
Guterres told Trump about his visit to Israel in August and noted that opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni had both told him they would support Netanyahu if he promoted a real diplomatic initiative.
On September 18, one day before his meeting with Guterres, Trump met in New York with Netanyahu. There he surprised the Israeli leader when, at a joint press event before the meeting, he focused on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
“We are going to discuss peace between Israel and the Palestinians; it will be a fantastic achievement,” Trump said. “We are giving it absolute go – there is a good chance it could happen.” A few minutes before the meeting, Trump tweeted the same message on his Twitter account.
But Netanyahu didn’t share Trump’s enthusiasm. His own statement to the cameras focused on the Iranian issue.
In the days before the meeting, Netanyahu and his staff had repeatedly stressed that the meeting would focus on the Iranian issue. Thus they weren’t happy that Trump chose to frame it as focused on the Palestinian issue.
In an effort at damage control, Netanyahu told Israeli reporters in a post-meeting briefing that despite the prominence Trump gave the Israeli-Palestinian issue in front of the cameras, at the meeting itself it wasn’t a major topic of discussion. Nevertheless, he admitted that Trump has a strong desire to advance the peace process.
On September 20, Trump met in New York with Abbas. In his statements for the cameras prior to that meeting, Trump once again sent a message of optimism, determination and personal commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“I think we have a pretty good shot – maybe the best shot ever,” Trump said. “I certainly will devote everything within my heart and within my soul to get that deal made. ... So we’ll see if we can put it together. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.”
Unlike Netanyahu, Abbas cooperated with Trump’s messaging and praised him repeatedly for his efforts to produce an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough.
At their meeting, Trump told Abbas that the White House was working on a new peace initiative but needed more time to finalize it. Palestinian sources briefed on what happened at the meeting said at the time that Trump had asked Abbas to give him the extra time he needed by refraining for the time being from any steps that could impede such an initiative.
A few days after he returned from New York, Netanyahu convened the security cabinet and briefed the ministers on his meeting with Trump. He told them Trump was working on a peace plan, and his impression was that the president was very determined to advance it.
“There’s no doubt the Palestinian issue is a very weighty and important one for Trump,” Netanyahu told the ministers. “Trump is projecting seriousness on this issue. The Americans are preparing a plan, and I presented our positions to the president. Trump is very determined, and he wants to make the ultimate deal.”