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Despite Netanyahu's Efforts, Even for Trump, Peace With Palestinians Comes First

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President Donald Trump listens to a question during a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Palace Hotel, New York, September 18, 2017.
President Donald Trump listens to a question during a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Palace Hotel, New York, September 18, 2017.Credit: Evan Vucci / AP

NEW YORK – Three minutes before his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began, U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out the most powerful weapon in his arsenal – his Twitter account – to make clear what he considered the most important issue on the meeting’s agenda. “Peace in the Middle East would be a truly great legacy for ALL people!” he tweeted.

And just in case Netanyahu missed Trump’s tweet, the president repeated his message in an even clearer form in front of the cameras at the start of the meeting. It was hard to avoid noticing Netanyahu’s discomfort.

Over the past week, the prime minister and his aides have worked hard to frame the meeting in both the media and public opinion as one that would deal mainly with the Iranian threat. Unfortunately for them, Trump had other plans.

What happened at the start of this meeting evoked feelings of déjà vu. At almost every talk he had with Barack Obama during the latter’s eight years in office, Netanyahu wanted to discuss Iran, but the U.S. president talked about the Palestinians. This ritual repeated Monday night.

After Trump delivered his monologue about his desire for a peace agreement, Netanyahu tried to do damage control by muttering that Trump himself had termed the Iranian nuclear deal “terrible.” But it was already too late.

Trump isn’t Obama, far from it. He doesn’t publicly criticize Netanyahu, he takes a softer line on settlement construction and he does everything with smiles and hugs.

But once again, it turns out that for an American president – any president, even Donald Trump – meetings with Israel’s prime minister are first and foremost about the Palestinian issue. In the end, Trump wants from Netanyahu exactly what all American presidents have wanted from their Israeli counterparts since the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem began in 1967.

Trump’s statement also contradicted the messages the White House had aggressively sent both the American and Israeli media in recent days. Trump’s aides did everything in their power to lower expectations about progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process during the UN General Assembly session.

The White House even said, perhaps at the request of Netanyahu and his aides, that the peace process might not be a central focus of the two leaders’ meeting. But these talking points collapsed in the face of Trump’s enthusiastic statements about his desire to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

There’s an enormous gap between Trump’s optimistic statements, on the one hand, and the reality on the ground in the West Bank and the deep crisis of trust between Israel and the Palestinians on the other. Still, Trump is trying to alter reality through his statements. In his career as a businessman, this worked more than once.

During his visit to Israel in May, Trump resurrected the word “peace” from the grave and returned it to the public debate. Despite the skepticism in both the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ office in Ramallah, it seems Trump is determined to continue in this direction. The president wants peace talks to resume and expects gestures and concessions from both sides.

The Trump-Netanyahu meeting on Monday was relatively short, lasting slightly less than an hour. This is shorter than any discussion Netanyahu had with Obama.

The meeting didn’t deal only with the Israeli-Palestinian issue; the two leaders also discussed Iran and Syria for a few minutes. But on these two issues as well, which are so important to Netanyahu, it’s not at all clear where the White House stands or what it’s willing to do to address Israel’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear agreement and the situation in Syria once the civil war ends.

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