Nineteenth century French journalist and author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr was the one who in 1849 coined the phrase, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That constitutes a pretty accurate description of what happened at the joint press conference given by U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House on Wednesday.
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Or, to paraphrase a famous quip by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on the eve of the Madrid Conference in 1991: The sea is the same sea, the Palestinians and Israelis are the same Palestinians and Israelis and the American brokers are the same American brokers.
After Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Donald Trump is the fourth president to try to achieve a historic peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He’s the fourth president to ask Israel to restrain its construction in the settlements, the fourth president to appoint a special envoy for the peace process and the fourth president to meet with the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president, call on them to renew direct talks and declare that he wants to mediate between the parties.
Trump’s conduct on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the 110 days since he assumed office indicates that he isn’t reinventing the wheel, isn’t changing the rules of the game and is trying to advance the peace process the same way, using the same means, and especially with the same enthusiasm as his predecessors. Trump’s peace initiative, whose details are still vague, looks like another round of direct bilateral talks with American mediation in an effort to achieve a permanent arrangement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even talk of a regional peace initiative looks at this point to be an inflated description of external support by the Arab states for the negotiations, the same support that Clinton, Bush and Obama tried to get but didn’t really succeed.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked at his daily briefing for journalists a short time after the Trump-Abbas meeting why the president was so optimistic and what had changed compared to all the failed efforts of his predecessors. “The man is different,” he said. “The style is different.”
Spicer is right. Compared to his predecessors, Trump’s rhetoric is a bit different and more comfortable to the ears of the Israeli right. He speaks of achieving a “peace agreement” rather than speaking of a “Palestinian state.” He speaks of “restraint” in settlement constructions and not about “freezing” it, and he speaks publicly about issues that previous administrations preferred to refer to in quiet conversations, like the transfer of money to the families of terrorists or battling incitement. This change of style isn’t necessarily bad. Some of it is even pretty positive. But the substance hasn’t changed. After a few months of fantasizing by the Israeli right that the Messiah had come, the settlers’ supporters in the government, the Knesset and the media will have to get used to the fact that the peace process isn’t going anywhere for now.
Spicer also said that what had changed was the respect that the leaders of both sides display toward the president. It’s not certain that respect is the right word. Awe or fear are probably more precise descriptions of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas feel toward the president. The difference, at least at this point, is the size of the club that the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president believe the U.S. president has under his desk in the Oval Office. Both Netanyahu and Abbas are intimidated, and Trump well knows this. It could be that this intimidation could open a window of opportunity for him to bring about a breakthrough where his predecessors failed.
In the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday they waited anxiously for updates about the Trump-Abbas meeting. Netanyahu and his people still aren’t sure what Trump wants to do and what his strategy is on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Jerusalem isn’t even sure what’s going to be with Trump’s visit to the region. The White House is meant to give an answer by the end of the week.
What both Jerusalem and Ramallah do know is that the driving force behind the desire to advance the peace process is Trump himself. In all the conversations that Netanyahu and Abbas’ advisers have had these past weeks with senior White House officials they were told the same thing – that the issue is a top priority for the president. At the end of the press conference with Abbas, Turmp said that he’d hears for years that the toughest deal to make is that between the Israelis and Palestinians. Let’s see if we can prove them wrong, he said. If Trump is really serious, he will have to formulate a clear strategy very soon.