Opinion

Don't Be the One Who Says No to Trump

U.S. president Donald Trump has a fleeting moment of leverage to push Israeli and Palestinian leaders to a deal. He must make the costs of disappointing him high

U.S President Donald Trump listens to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. May 23, 2017
Evan Vucci/AP

While Washington continued to roil this week, President Donald J. Trump barnstormed through the Middle East and proved that he knows a thing or two about leverage.

It’s apparent that he has some, at least when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians.  His leverage derives from several factors: He is new, representing a fresh face following both sides’ growing weary of President Obama, and they are eager to establish the best possible relationships with him. 

He offered an exceptionally warm embrace of Israel, with an evocative visit to the Western Wall and a speech that touched on Zionist themes. But he also gave great respect and honor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

He is unpredictable, meaning no party can feel confident that their good standing today will continue tomorrow — and they might learn about it via Twitter. To the Israelis, he seems to be bringing tantalizing offers of normalization from the Saudis — overflights, communications links, and trade offices — while to the Palestinians, he may represent their last chance to achieve statehood before Abbas leaves the scene.

Trump was also effective at holding on to his leverage. His difficult asks of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas, assuming he made them, remained largely private, and in his public remarks he kept things general. The sense one gets is that he just wants a deal, and he is not so particular about the details. But he went out of his way to testify to both leaders’ desire to achieve peace — a hard sell among many in this region, but almost daring them to prove him wrong.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands at the Israel museum in Jerusalem. May 23, 2017.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

His generalities have Israelis on both ends of the political spectrum rushing to associate with him, claiming him as a member of their camp. They pour their own views into his empty vessel. 

HaBayit HaYehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett argues that Trump’s eschewing of references to a two-state solution heralds the end of the notion of Palestinian state and gives a green light to settlement expansion and annexation. Zionist Union Chairman Yitzhak Herzog, hearing the same words, understands Trump’s references to an Arab-supported, negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace that ends the conflict and gives Palestinians self-determination can only refer to a two-state solution.

They can’t both be right. But we are going to find out soon who is.

Trump’s next move should be to put the tough decisions before both sides soon.  Neither will want to get caught saying no to him, especially early in his term before the inevitable disappointments gradually lower the costs of them saying no. It is encouraging, therefore, that Trump’s envoy, Jason Greenblatt, returned to the region already yesterday to continue to press for progress.

Trump can use this moment to tell Abbas that he will continue to vouch for Abbas’ desire for peace and push the Israelis to take much further steps in the West Bank than the limited economic measures recently announced. But he can demand both that Abbas set no preconditions for negotiations, and that he make a more forceful effort to combat incitement and terror, including an end to the salary payments to terrorist prisoners. The timing of the outrage in Manchester, the same day as Trump’s meeting with Abbas, helps him make the point.  Netanyahu was not wrong when he pointed out that, had the attacker been Palestinian and the victims been Israeli, the terrorist’s family would have drawn a lifetime stipend

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. May 23, 2017
Evan Vucci/AP

But the President can also lean heavily on Netanyahu. He can explain that he is able to bring Israel the Arab world, thanks to his friendship with the (wise) Saudi king and his pledges to help them combat Iran and ISIS. But he needs Israel to give him something to work with. Netanyahu may be asked to take steps — on a partial settlement freeze, future definition of borders, or extensive Palestinian development — that he could not get through his current government, especially with right-wing ministers who think Trump is on their side. But if the Saudi offers are real, there will also be pressure within Israel for Netanyahu to respond in a way that brings them to life.

Trump needs to be prepared for well-practiced Israeli and Palestinian negotiating tactics of delay, of dragging the mediator in the details, and of preparing not for success but for failure and ensuring they are well-positioned for the blame game to follow. But he needs to make the costs of disappointing him high.

It remains an uphill climb. Mistrust runs deep. Netanyahu will be cautious, because promised gestures from Arab states have not materialized in the past.  The Palestinians may not live up to their end. And Abbas will be equally wary of exposing himself and coming up empty-handed.

Any of those factors could be reasons for the parties to postpone making decisions. So could Israeli elections, if they are called. And if Trump’s leverage erodes as the scandals play out in Washington, this moment will be a fleeting one.

So if Trump is smart, he will bring the parties to their moment of decision quickly.

Don't be the one who says no.

Daniel Shapiro is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 until the end of the Obama Administration. Follow him on Twitter: @DanielBShapiro