President Trump said Monday that U.S. aid expenditures in the Middle East were “a mistake,” both undercutting a round of complicated diplomacy in Arab capitals and underscoring his rising frustration at the dwindling chances of a Middle East peace deal.
The president also erroneously claimed that the United States has spent $7 trillion in the Middle East over the past 17 years — a return to a frequent theme for Trump that U.S. generosity be repaid with results or support.
“As of a couple of months ago, we have spent $7 trillion in the Middle East. Seven trillion dollars. What a mistake. But it is what it is,” Trump said at the White House as he introduced a domestic infrastructure spending plan.
“This will be a big week for Infrastructure,” Trump had tweeted earlier Monday. “After so stupidly spending $7 trillion in the Middle East, it is now time to start investing in OUR Country!”
A day earlier, Trump had told a conservative Israeli newspaper that neither Israel nor the Palestinians may be committed to making peace.
“Right now, I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace, they are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace,” Trump said in an interview with Israel Hayom.
It was an unusual dig at Israel, made more significant for its appearance in a publication owned by Trump ally Sheldon Adelson. It follows two months of deterioration in the already thin prospects for what Trump has called “the ultimate deal,” and suggested that the president partly blames ally Israel for the bleak outlook.
“I don’t know, frankly, if we are going to even have talks,” Trump said. “But I think it is very foolish for the Palestinians and I also think it would be very foolish for the Israelis if they don’t make a deal. It’s our only opportunity and it will never happen after this.”
Many in the region expected that Trump would present a proposal for talks early this year, but any announcement appears to be on hold. His Mideast envoys have never said when they plan to reveal their proposal, which is expected to ask Arab states, including Egypt and Gulf countries that are U.S. allies, to encourage Palestinians to make a deal.
That task was made harder by Trump’s declaration in December that the United States considers Jerusalem to be the Israeli capital.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who generally says little about the peace effort overseen by presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, is on a week-long trip to the Middle East that does not include a stop in Israel. Tillerson was in Cairo on Sunday and Monday, pressing U.S. concerns about the election next month in which Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is seeking a second four-year term.
Sissi, a former military general who came to power in a coup, is effectively unopposed after several potential candidates were arrested or otherwise discouraged from challenging him.
Tillerson did not answer a question about whether the United States would consider withholding more military aid if it found that Egypt’s elections were not fair and credible. Last August, the United States denied Egypt $95.7 million in aid and withheld an additional $195 million because of lack of progress on democratic norms and human rights.
Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually from the United States. Trump has threatened to cut off aid to countries that voted against the Jerusalem recognition at the United Nations — such as Egypt — but has not followed through.
Trump’s $7 trillion claim — or $6 trillion, as he has said at other moments — lumps together the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which together cost about $1.8 trillion from 2001 to 2017, while also adding in estimates of future spending such as interest on the debt and veterans’ care for the next three decades.
U.S. foreign aid in the Middle East and in Afghanistan is different from war spending, although Trump often seems to conflate them. He also does not appear to distinguish between war and reconstruction aid in Iraq, which is in the Middle East, from Afghanistan, which is in Central Asia.
Vice President Pence visited Israel and neighboring states last month, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to see him. Abbas cited the Jerusalem announcement.
Trump’s designated negotiator, Jason D. Greenblatt, was in Israel and Jordan for a lengthy diplomatic trip last month, but like Pence he did not visit the West Bank or meet with high-level Palestinian officials.
Kushner has not visited the region since before the Jerusalem announcement. He has met with Israeli officials elsewhere but has not been to Israel or the West Bank since August.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he spoke with Trump on Monday about the Israeli-Palestinian question. The phone call came as Putin prepared to host Abbas for talks in Moscow. Russian media reported that Abbas told Putin that Palestinians no longer consider the United States an honest peace broker and would continue to refuse meetings with U.S. officials.
The Trump administration has announced a major cut in aid to the Palestinians this year, notifying the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees last month that it would withhold $65 million of a planned $125 million installment.
In the Israel Hayom interview, Trump praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he met with last month, and said U.S.-Israel relations have never been closer. Still, he added a gentle warning about Israeli settlements on land the Palestinians claim for a future state.
“We will be talking about settlements. The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements,” Trump said.
When he met Netanyahu in Davos, Switzerland, Trump pointedly said Israel will “pay” for the Jerusalem move in future negotiations, an idea that some on the Israeli political right dismiss.
Trump also clarified that his declaration in December that Jerusalem is the Israeli capital does not mean he assumes that the entire city is automatically Israeli.
“By taking Jerusalem off the table, I wanted to make it clear that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. And as for specific boundaries, I would support what both sides agreed to,” Trump said.
Although Trump administration officials have said the same, Trump had previously left room for interpretation that he was dismissing Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem.
Morello reported from Cairo.