President Trump boasted during the election that his real estate background could help him succeed where other U.S. presidents have failed in making what he calls the “ultimate” land deal — a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Once he took office, he dived into the seemingly intractable conflict immediately and personally, and named his son-in-law and a trusted family lawyer as would-be peace envoys.
“There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever,” Trump said in April.
But five months into the job, Trump is learning that enthusiasm, business acumen and family connections go only so far, and that a strong pro-Israel stance doesn’t mean Israeli leaders will see things his way.
The peace effort he launched is at a pivot point. But the negotiating team is reckoning with the limits of the goodwill extended to the new administration and the hardened positions on both sides that helped sink previous U.S. peace efforts.
At times, the small U.S. negotiating team has appeared buffeted by dueling leaks to Israeli and Palestinian media outlets, each painting the other side as the obstacle. Some commentary cast senior adviser Jared Kushner as a babe in the Mideast woods.
In separate meetings with Israelis and Palestinians in late June, Kushner used none of his father-in-law’s hyperbole about a grand bargain, and left some of his audience with the impression that the United States is reconsidering the fast start.
“They are reaching the realization pretty early that neither side is serious about moving forward with the peace process,” said Frank Lowenstein, who led the last U.S. effort in 2013 and 2014.
U.S. officials deny Palestinian media reports that they are slowing down their efforts or lowering their sights, and they stress that no one around Trump thought that the task would be easy. The effort is not only continuing but expanding, U.S. officials said, adding that high-level discussions described as “productive” have continued since Kushner’s return to Washington.
“We spent the past few months renewing each side’s commitment to trying to achieve peace and to begin conversations without preconditions,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. “We are going to continue our steady engagement with each side, and conversations will get more in-depth as we go along.”
Trump got firsthand exposure to the maneuvering and pressure tactics that have been used by both sides in the six-decade impasse during his recent trip to Israel and the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used an intimate May 22 meeting with Trump to show him an Israeli-compiled video of what Netanyahu called anti-Israel incitement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel’s would-be partner in any peace deal.
Trump met with Abbas the next day and surprised him with a fusillade of accusations about terrorism and Palestinian attitudes toward Israel that Trump said would thwart a deal, U.S. and other officials familiar with the meeting said.
Trump bellowed, “You tricked me!” at a shaken Abbas, a U.S. official told Israel’s Channel 2.
Afterward, Abbas thanked Trump for attempting negotiations, but made a point of publicly reiterating Palestinian demands for a settlement that includes the hardest elements for Israeli leaders to swallow.
“Our commitment is to cooperate with you in order to make peace and forge a historic peace deal with the Israelis,” Abbas said woodenly.
Some U.S. officials concluded that by showing Trump the video, which included snippets of Abbas appearing to incite Palestinians to violence, Netanyahu was intent on killing any possibility of peace talks before they even began. Trump’s viewing of the video has not been previously reported.
The effort may have backfired, however. On later reflection, Trump appeared to recognize that the Israelis had tried to skew the Abbas meeting, one person who spoke with him said. Others close to the fledgling peace effort denied that Trump felt misused or misled by Netanyahu.
Either way, the episode gave Trump a taste of how difficult any future shuttle diplomacy might be, and a glimpse into how both Israel and the Palestinians can attempt to manipulate American intermediaries.
The Abbas video is similar to others produced by Israel and shown to U.S. officials in the past, U.S. and Israeli officials said. But this one appeared aimed at discrediting Abbas personally and triggering an “emotional response” from Trump on the eve of his meeting with the aging Palestinian leader, said a senior U.S. official briefed on the meeting.
Israel has been pressing American officials on the issue of Palestinian incitement for years, and it was a focus of Abbas’s first meeting with Trump earlier in May.
An Israeli official confirmed that Netanyahu played a video about incitement, and said it was an attempt to set the record straight after what Israeli leaders viewed as Abbas’s duplicity during that White House visit.
“Abbas lied to POTUS at a joint press conference about ‘educating Palestinians for peace,’ — a ridiculous assertion — and Israel simply showed why it is not true,” the official said, using the acronym for President of the United States.
“The prime minister has full confidence in President Trump and will continue working closely with the administration in order to advance the political process,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting.
Abbas, meanwhile, felt betrayed by both Trump and Netanyahu, the senior U.S. official briefed on the meetings said. That first White House meeting had gone well, Abbas told supporters afterward, and he was optimistic despite Trump’s frequent statements in support of Israel.
“We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump told Abbas during their White House news conference May 3. “We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done.”
The optimism has faded, and the jockeying has begun, said David Makovsky, who was an adviser to Secretary of State John F. Kerry during the last peace push and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“We are at the end of Act 1, where everybody behaves, mainly because they want to give President Trump a chance,” said Makovsky, who came away from a visit to Israel and the West Bank this week dispirited.
“It’s back to the blame game,” he said.
Trump has been strongly supportive of Israel, and has said frequently that his administration would be a better friend to the Jewish state than was President Barack Obama’s. But Trump has also said that he expects both sides to make sacrifices and compromises if they want peace, and he used his first presidential meeting with Netanyahu to publicly ask for Israeli restraint in settlement-building.
Trump is inexperienced even if he’s not naive, veterans of past peace efforts said. He is now having a “health-care moment,” in which he realizes that something that looked doable on paper turns out to be far more complicated than he first imagined, said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator.
“Who knew it would be so hard and complicated?” Levy joked.
“Netanyahu’s game plan is not new — he attempts to shift the focus onto diversions and distractions that he hopes will make the Palestinians look bad and will keep the pressure off him when it comes to offering something on the substance of a peace deal,” Levy said. Hence the Israeli focus on incitement and Palestinian payments to the families of prisoners accused of violence against Israelis, he said.
Palestinian officials claim that many of the arrests are the result of opposition to illegal occupation and that they have a duty to support the families of those jailed. The issue may soon be out of the Trump administration’s hands. Congress is moving toward passing legislation suspending all U.S. assistance to the Palestinians until the prisoner-payment issue is resolved.
The U.S. team led by Kushner and former Trump lawyer Jason D. Greenblatt claims some success in helping prepare the ground for eventual talks, but U.S. officials are tight-lipped about what form such talks could take. Likewise, they have sketched no timeline for their effort. Kerry set a deadline at the outset of the last effort, only to extend it.
The peace effort, led out of Greenblatt’s office in the Old Executive Office Building, is exploring ways to expand and hire additional staff. Lowenstein’s comparatively large operation, which was housed at the State Department, was dismantled after talks collapsed in acrimony.
U.S. officials point to Israel’s decision to allow 24-hour travel for Palestinians on the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge crossing to Jordan. The trial expansion of travel hours this summer is seen as a way to build confidence ahead of potential talks.
U.S. officials also suggest that Israel has cut back on at least some settlement activity in apparent deference to Trump’s request for restraint.
Trump has made a break with previous peace efforts by dropping U.S. insistence on a separate, sovereign Palestinian state as the goal of negotiations, although he says he is open to that idea if both parties want it.
Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.