Israelis dare not make forecasts for Trump’s whirlwind tour

While a presidential tour of the Middle East was always on the cards, this hastily-planned visit has caught Israel off guard

May 11, 2017 12:53

US President Donald Trump’s sudden enthusiasm for Middle Eastern diplomacy has caught Jerusalem slightly off-balance.

On the campaign trail, the candidate Trump did express a few times his interest in achieving the “ultimate deal” — peace between Israel and the Palestinians — but it’s not easy to tell when the erratic president is actually serious about anything.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle prides itself on having better connections with the new denizens of the West Wing than any other world leaders, and that’s probably an accurate assessment, but even the best relationship with Mr Trump cannot provide an accurate forecast of his plans and actions.

While a presidential visit to Israel was expected to take place relatively early in the term, the hastily assembled plan for Mr Trump’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican, as well as Nato and G7 meetings in Belgium and Italy, have left little time for serious preparations.

On top of it all, there was the surprisingly cordial meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House last Wednesday, which resulted in an invitation to the Palestinian Authority as well. Is there something more than grand words to President Trump’s designs?

The situation on the ground has not changed, of course. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas remain deeply suspicious of each other and the distance to relaunching a diplomatic process, let alone reaching a peace agreement, is vast.

Israel’s greatest fear in previous presidencies has always been having a diplomatic initiative being sprung on it. The danger of this happening with the Trump administration appeared minimal. The president’s initial appointments on this thorny issue, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, new ambassador David Friedman and special representative David Greenblatt, are all extremely pro-Israel and well connected in Jerusalem. But this president — who this week appeared to reverse his campaign pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem — does not do things in any recognisable pattern.

Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu is worried that one of his oldest supporters, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, from whom he has been estranged for years, is quietly advising both the president and Mr Abbas, keeping him out of the loop.

The understanding in Jerusalem is that Mr Trump’s national security advisers are trying to rebuild the Sunni coalition with which the US worked before the Obama era, in order to take on Iranian and Russian influence in the region. This will, of course, be a positive development as far as Israel is concerned, but the Sunni leaders are also likely to demand some form of Israeli concession to the Palestinians.

In two weeks, Air Force One will land at Ben Gurion Airport after a visit to Riyadh. No matter how much groundwork is done and how many agreements are worked out in advance, there’s no predicting what Mr Trump may say in his whirlwind visit, which will include a highly-unorthodox visit to Masada.

Washington is still getting used to a president who has yet to realise the importance of presidential statements. The Middle East is unready for Hurricane Trump.


May 11, 2017 12:53

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