Trump's Middle East policy will become hostage to trouble back home

Kushner will now take a back seat over the Russia probe, and the State Department in Washington is still not fully staffed

May 29, 2017 10:52

Ever since Donald Trump’s election nearly seven months ago, the Israeli government has been receiving mixed signals from him and his various circles of advisers.

He promised to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, then seemed to renege on the promise. Various Trump advisers allowed Israeli right-wingers to believe that under him Israel could build at will in the West Bank and even annex parts of it, then the president surprised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their joint press conference in Washington by asking him to “rein in a bit” settlement building.

Mr Trump appointed staunch supporters of Israel to key posts overseeing the peace process, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and personal attorney Jason Greenblatt; and another of his attorneys, David Friedman, a donor to settlement groups, as the ambassador to Israel.

At the same time, however, veteran officials from previous administrations with a much more critical attitude towards Israel were retained by the National Security Council to work on the brief.

Advisers to Mr Netanyahu voiced the fear that the president and his main advisers were being influenced by the Sunni Arab leaders, as well as figures such as former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, to pressure the government to make concessions to the Palestinians.

It was expected that Mr Trump’s visit to Israel last week would bring a bit of clarity to the new administration’s policy but, if anything, it served to further muddy the waters.

In his speeches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the president spoke of his determination to reach a peace deal, “the ultimate deal”, and of his confidence that both sides were ready to make peace. But he mentioned no details – not the two-state solution, or any solution for that matter.

As details emerged from the closed meetings he held, things became even murkier. In the meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he was reported to have been more demanding, proposing that Israel transfer part of Area C in the West Bank, which is under total Israeli control, to Area B, where the Palestinians have civil (but not security) jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, there were reports that in his meeting in Bethlehem Mr Trump angrily accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of being involved in “incitement” against Israel.

In trying to make some sense of it all, Israeli and Western diplomats have reached the conclusion that there is no clear hierarchy or policy-making in the Trump administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

While Mr Kushner accompanied Mr Trump in all his meetings during the overseas trip, the impression received has been that he is not going to be as deeply involved in diplomacy as was initially believed. This impression was strengthened this week as more reports came out that he is one of the main targets of the investigations into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

In Mr Kushner’s absence, and until the still empty State Department in Washington is fully staffed, Mr Greenblatt seems to be in charge of the brief. But he is largely working on his own, and while he apparently has the president’s backing, that will count for less if Mr Trump is being sucked in by the welter of revelations on Russian ties constantly leaking from the investigations and American intelligence agencies.

Whether or not the Trump administration actually has a Middle East policy, it is likely to become hostage to his domestic troubles.

May 29, 2017 10:52

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