I hate to do it, but maybe it’s time to say a good word about Donald Trump.
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Against the advice of the Middle East experts, the think tanks, the foreign policy wonks, the international affairs scholars, and the America Firsters, President Trump has decided to push for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. My take: Good for him. It’s worth the risk. When everything else has failed, what exactly do we have to lose?
I am not a fan of the President and disagree with him on virtually everything. But here he has shown some guts and daring. Let’s give him credit and see where this goes.
American expert opinion, on both the right and the left, has been urging the President to push Israelis and Palestinians for, at most, some modest confidence-building measures. The argument is that the two sides are simply too far apart to do more than that. On the Palestinian side, Hamas remains firmly rejectionist and Mahmoud Abbas, while well-intentioned, is still pathetically weak. And Benjamin Netanyahu, facing personal scandals and a hardline government, lacks the resolve to push his coalition partners toward compromise of any sort.
The experts note, furthermore, that the President lacks the skills, patience, understanding, and common sense to make anything happen. He is ignorant of the history and the current realities of the Middle East. And he is also absurdly confident that he can do what no President has been able to do for 70 years. Some of this misplaced confidence is simple narcissism while some, perhaps, is an attempt to divert attention from his struggles and frustrations on the domestic front.
In substantial measure, all of these concerns are justified. The odds of a major breakthrough are slight. Nonetheless, there are other ways to look at what is happening and something to be said for a Trumpian initiative.
Most important, Trump has a solid and respectable foreign policy team, led by James Mattis and H.R. McMaster. Mattis and McMaster are pushing their boss back into the arms of America’s traditional Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They look to the Saudis and the Egyptians to bring the Palestinians along on a possible deal and for America to twist Israel’s arm if necessary. And why push for a deal at all? Because, as these veteran military men recognize, the current drift of events is deeply worrisome. Iran gains strength with every passing day, and the civil war in Syria is still dangerously disruptive and potentially explosive.
An agreement between Israel and Palestine has no direct connection to the Iranian nuclear deal. Mattis and McMaster do not expect that deal to be cancelled. But they do believe that Israeli-Palestinian peace would be helpful in creating a united front against Iranian expansion and subversion in the region.
Of course, there are many who say that Trump’s personal quirks make an Israeli-Palestinian peace impossible. The President is self-absorbed, inexperienced, and possessed of a bizarre and disturbing Twitter fetish. Nonetheless, when it comes to an Israeli-Palestinian deal, his unpredictability might actually work to his advantage. And my guess is that this is what his senior advisors believe.
Speaking at Israel’s Independence Day celebration in Washington, McMaster, in a case of classic understatement, noted that “The President is not a super-patient man.” He went on to say that “some people have described him as disruptive. They’re right. And this is good.” And he emphasized the need for the United States to take advantage of the current moment of opportunity and use it to solve “intractable problems.”
All sides, I suspect, are pondering what it will mean to them that Trump is not “a super-patient man.” The Saudis are likely thinking that Trump will have little tolerance for the Arab peace plan if that plan is so filled with ambiguities that it is rendered useless. The Palestinians are likely contemplating that Trump’s team will expect them to put aside, once and for all, their ridiculous claims about refugee return. And Benjamin Netanyahu is likely recognizing that 50 years after the Six Day War, Trump will want Israel’s government to say in plain English what it expects Israel’s borders to be.
In any case, all parties know that if Trump is serious about wanting a deal, the days of endless game-playing are over. Is Trump nave? Maybe. Is he clueless about diplomatic history? Perhaps. Might he blow up any potential deal with a single ill-considered tweet? Absolutely.
Nonetheless, what he won’t do is let the Arabs dodge and the Israelis build settlements and proclaim that it doesn’t matter. What he won’t do is allow both sides to declare that they have “no preconditions” while waving a list of points on which compromise is absolutely impossible. And he won’t hesitate to demand results, point fingers, and assign blame. And who knows? As unlikely as it seems, maybe this approach—Trump as both bulldozer and bully—could actually work.
But the key is this: There is not a lot to lose. The status quo is not harmless; it is pernicious, undermining stability in the region and boosting Iran’s power and status. And while the Palestinians and the Arab world are more to blame for the current impasse than the Israelis, settlement building and occupation continue to erode Israel’s democratic institutions and her standing in the world. So yes, Trump is a bit crazy, but this may be the moment to give his particular brand of craziness a chance.
And finally, a word of advice to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Assume that President Trump is serious about wanting a deal, whether you are happy about that or not. When he arrives for his visit, be ready with a plan. You haven’t done well in recent years with U.S. Presidents, and you cannot afford to alienate this one too.
Don’t try to play him. Be prepared with specifics and concrete ideas. If the Palestinians and the Saudis are not ready for peace – which is the likely scenario – they will take the blame. But if, by some miracle, they are ready to move forward and you are not, even Sheldon Adelson will not save you. There will be hell to pay.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie