Trump’s achievements with this trip are already in the bag

He is the first US president to have put Israel on the itinerary of the first foreign visit of his administration

May 22, 2017 14:37

By the time Donald Trump landed at Ben Gurion Airport at noon on Monday, he had already accomplished what may well be the two main achievements of his visit.

He is now the first US President to have put Israel on the itinerary of the first presidential visit of his administration, and the Air Force One Boeing 747 which carried him from Riyadh is the first aircraft to have openly flown direct from Saudi Arabia to Israel.

It is quite likely that these will remain the two sole milestones of his 28-hour visit, but they are significant none the less.

The timing of Mr Trump's Middle East tour underlines the fact that so far he only has one clear foreign policy objective - pivoting away from the Obama administration's attempt to engage with Iran and to create a regional balance of power between the Sunni and Shia states.

The speeches made by both Mr Trump and Saudi King Salman focused on uniting the Arab world against two enemies - jihadist terrorism and Iran.

Upon arriving in Israel, the president took up where he had left off in Riyadh, attacking Iran both in his opening greeting and his farewell at President Reuven Rivlin's residence in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already set the ball rolling on Iran in his greeting at the airport.

There has been a clear theme to Mr Trump's visits to Israel and the Saudi kingdom. He sticks to what he know his hosts will like to hear and steers away from any controversial topic - human rights in Saudi Arabia (where the president made it clear twice in his speech that he was not going to tell other countries how to run their internal affairs) and the tough decisions Israel will have to make to go forward in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

In the first three mini-speeches he gave in Israel, Trump mentioned the Palestinians only once, and then he extolled what he called the "commitment" of the Israeli government to make peace with them. Nothing about a two-state solution or any other form of agreement or concession.

Not that Mr Trump is saying everything his Israeli hosts wants to hear. President Rivlin and a number of Israeli ministers who greeted him on the tarmac requested America recognise Israel's sovereignty in Jerusalem and fulfil his campaign commitment to move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv. The president smiled and changed the subject. He has not so far even acknowledged that he is in Jerusalem. Mr Trump has obviously been briefed by his advisers - and probably the Saudis had a word as well - to keep well away from the hot potato of Israel's contested capital.

Mr Netanyahu's reported requests to join him during his visit to the Western Wall were turned down. For now at least, the Trump administration is sticking to previous policy and not even official Israeli government photographers have been allowed to accompany him during his "private religious visit" to the Church of Sepulchre and the Western Wall, across the Green Line in Eastern Jerusalem.

So what if anything of diplomatic significance can we still look forward to in this visit? Very little time in the presidential schedule has actually been left for actual diplomacy. There will be an hour's meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the evening, followed by a brief visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow in Bethlehem. And then the main speech at the Israel Museum at noon. Will any of these contain something of substance?

Briefings and leaks from the White House indicate that while the president is still eager to pursue his "ultimate deal" between Israel and the Palestinians, he has not arrived in the Middle East with any plans.

The Palestinian leadership was warned in advance not to expect any announcements on a settlements freeze and a modest package of economic incentives to the Palestinian Authority approved on the eve of the visit by the Israeli cabinet mainly includes items that were already agreed upon.

Neither is there the prospect of an immediate breakthrough in Israeli-Saudi relations. The direct Air Force One flight was a tantalising taste of what could be in store, and of course there was lots of fighting talk about the joint Israeli-Sunni interest in confronting Iran, but that tacit alliance already exists. For now that may have to suffice. The significance of the Trump visit will probably be just in the fact that it has taken place.

May 22, 2017 14:37

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