Opinion |

A Repellent Personality, a Miserable President. But on Mideast Peace - Back Trump

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is wrong: If there’s the slightest chance for a deal to be made, we must support it. Yes, even if Donald Trump is its advocate and champion

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017. Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Those of us who are desperate for Israeli-Palestinian peace may not have the luxury of choosing the architects of peace, or its messengers.

It may be that those who bring peace will not have clean hands and pure hearts. It may be that their motivations will be suspect, their character sullied, their backgrounds questionable, and their egos uncontrolled. We may not like their politics, their past, or, for that matter, their parenting.

But if they bring peace, it will not matter. Not to me, at least. And this will be so even if the lead player in the peace saga turns out to be President Donald Trump.

Not everyone agrees. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a champion of peace efforts for 40 years and a hero to me and many others, has written ("For 40 Years, I’ve Fought for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. But I Won’t Buy a Trump-brokered Deal") a stinging critique of the very idea that Donald Trump could broker a peace deal. Trump could not be the author of a genuine deal, she says, because he is a chronic liar, driven entirely by ego and self-interest. Since we cannot trust him, neither could we trust any deal that he would make.

It is a powerful argument, persuasive and brilliantly written. And in fact, much of what she has said about Trump I have also said, although not nearly as well. Nonetheless, the argument is wrong. And while it is not at all likely that Trump will broker a successful deal, it is also not impossible. And the Jewish world, including the peace camp, should be rooting him on.

We struggle with this, of course, for the very simple reason that we are mostly repelled by Trump’s personal characteristics—his anger, crudity, and misogyny. And even more important, he has performed miserably in virtually every area of his presidency. Nonetheless, his handling of the Middle East constitutes the one notable exception. And his just-concluded trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel was, more or less, a rather impressive success.

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

In Riyadh, he addressed leaders of 50 Arab and Muslim nations, denouncing terror, extremism, and people who “threaten Israel with destruction” and “repeat vile stereotypes of Jews.” Yes, the speech was simplistic and far too easy on his Saudi hosts, but it was not bad. It offered a counter narrative to the anti-Muslim ranting of his presidential campaign and laid the groundwork for peace efforts between the Arab world and Israel.

Once in Israel, the President was cautious but got most everything right. He did not embrace the settlement movement or endorse settlement expansion. He did not announce the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem or even hint that such a move was likely. Israel’s rightwing settlement advocates such as Naftali Bennett were, at the very least, unsatisfied, while American Jewish right wingers such as Mort Klein and Sheldon Adelson were frustrated at best and fuming at worst.

Most significant, from the moment he landed until the moment he departed, Trump relentlessly pounded home the message that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is essential, and now is the time. The Saudis and the Arab world? Thanks to him, already on board. The Iranian threat? To be repelled by a grand Sunni-Israeli coalition. All that is required is for Israel and the Palestinians to do their part.

And remarkably—or perhaps not so remarkably—the President so susceptible to extreme flattery knew how to dish it out himself. Thinking of the deal that was yet to be, he effusively praised the Jewish state, visited the Kotel, and heaped encomia on Bibi’s head. The reason? He was building up credit with the Israeli public and making things easier for Bibi, who still has to deal with a hard right coalition. For the same reason, he made no reference to a two-state solution, even though it was clear to all that such a solution was the inescapable foundation of his “ultimate deal.”

Eventually, of course, and sooner rather than later, Bibi will have to pay the price with real concessions. So will Abbas and so will the Saudis. Trump, rather expertly it seems, was setting them up for the promised deal, stressing the benefits and downplaying the costs. But there will be costs to all of the players.

Left to right, Trump's Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.Credit: Mark Neiman/GPO, Olivier Douliery/AFP, Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

And the big question now is whether President Donald Trump, the narcissistic and easily-distracted deal-maker, can do what needs to be done: Assemble and direct a Middle East team, determine goals, focus on details, ward off pressure, make demands of all parties, and make the ultimate deal happen.

On balance, it is far more likely that he will fail than succeed. After all, no one else has been able to make this deal. The gaps between the sides are huge, and the leaders remain intransigent and cowardly. Furthermore, in the next 18 months, President Trump may shift his attention to other things, be overwhelmed by domestic turmoil, or no longer be President.

Nonetheless, all is not lost. Against the odds and all expectations, Trump so far has played his hand well. The strategic situation – the Sunni-Shiite split, Saudi fear of Iran, and growing Saudi-Israeli ties—is more favorable for peace than it has ever been. And as countless observers have pointed out, Trump’s untethered worldview and unpredictable behavior are actually an advantage in this situation.

And so I would say, gently and pleadingly, to Letty Cottin Pogrebin: You know as I do that Israelis and Palestinians desperately need peace. You know as I do that the occupation must end, and the Palestinians must have a state of their own. You know as I do that only an American President can break the deadlock and bring the sides together.

Better Trump, now obsessed with his Mideast deal, than a President who doesn’t care or doesn’t think it’s worth the bother. Better an erratic and undisciplined Trump, offering a slender reed of hope for Israel/Palestine, than the descent of the Middle East into chaos and despair. That is why Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog support Trump’s efforts and Naftali Bennett does not.

That is why if there is the slightest chance for a deal to be made and peace to emerge, peace activists must support it—even if Donald Trump is its advocate and champion.

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



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