JERUSALEM — On his first trip to the Holy Land, President Trump scored points with the locals by paying homage to Holocaust victims and visiting some of the most important symbols of Judaism and Christianity, as well stopping briefly in the Palestinian territories.
But it’s what he didn’t do or say that made his visit a success: He did not discuss politics.
At least not in any depth.
During his public addresses in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Trump talked forcefully about peace but refrained from offering specifics of how it could be achieved or from berating one side or the other too harshly.
Unlike his predecessor, there were no references to Israeli settlements, an issue the Obama administration clearly deemed the main barrier to achieving peace. He also did not mention a future with an Israeli and Palestinian state side by side, nor did he bring up the status of Jerusalem.
Analysts and commentators were left Wednesday wondering what, if anything, Trump might do to resolve the decades-old conflict.
On the Israeli side, leaders celebrated Trump’s vagueness. The ambiguity, they said, would give both sides the flexibility to resume negotiations and start peace-building measures.
Palestinians viewed Trump’s meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on Tuesday as positive overall but were concerned by his failure to mention a future Palestinian state.
Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy, Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the United States, said the two sides have been locked too tightly into a preset formula, with the results of negotiations determined in advance: two states built along the lines created in 1967 with some land swaps between the sides.
“This president has a different approach to his predecessors,” he said. “His staff comes from the world of business, and they know that two people at a negotiating table have no expectations as to what the results will be.”
“It also opens doors to other actors like Saudi Arabia,” Oren said.
Trump has said that achieving a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians is possible. He arrived in Israel from Saudi Arabia carrying a clear message that moderate Sunni Muslim states would be willing to normalize ties with Israel if its conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.
Israeli officials received the message but indicated they were looking for the United States to put more pressure on Arab countries to accept Israel first — only then would peace with the Palestinians be a possibility.
“If Israel has a strong partner in the Arab world, then we will be able to bring the change,” said Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, who was privy to some of the high-level meetings with the Americans. “Today the Saudis are at the center of the picture, and they need to make a decision to be a real partner.”
“The process with the Palestinians will only come with support of the Arab world,” Katz said.
In Rome on Wednesday, as Trump and his entourage began the third phase of its tour, the White House issued a statement highlighting Abbas’s willingness to resume negotiations immediately.
“Palestinian officials seem to be reassured by this visit, but they are cautious. They are worried by Trump’s language because he did not mention two states,” said Ghassan Khatib, a professor of political science at Birzeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The lack of specifics in Trump’s addresses allowed for alternative interpretations. Israel’s right-wing camp saw that as a pass to ramp up construction in Israeli settlements, Jewish communities built on land the Palestinians want for a future state.
“Trump understands the connection between Jews and Jerusalem and that peace will not be achieved by creating a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel,” hard-line Israeli minister Naftali Bennett told Israeli army radio Wednesday. “I want to take advantage of the next few years.”
Bennett said the time was ripe to build new homes in the settlements, a move that Trump had previously urged Netanyahu to slow down on for now.
“Bennett is wrong,” said Yaki Dayan, a former Israeli consul in Los Angeles. “You heard Trump saying this would not be helpful. He does not put it as a condition, but when he says it will not be helpful, the message comes out stronger.”
Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said that while Trump might have appeared warm in public, in private he probably made some hard asks of both sides. More tough requests are likely to come in the future, he said.
Only in time “we will find out if it all works,” Shapiro said.