President Donald Trump has cast the elusive pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians as the “ultimate deal.” But he will step foot in Israel having offered few indications of how he plans to achieve what so many of his predecessors could not.
Trump has handed son-in-law Jared Kushner and longtime business lawyer Jason Greenblatt the assignment of charting the course toward a peace process. The White House-driven effort is a sharp shift from the practice of previous U.S. administrations that typically gave secretaries of state those responsibilities.
Kushner and Greenblatt were to accompany Trump on his two-day visit, set to begin Monday and include separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Trump also planned to visit the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, an important Jewish holy site.
On the eve of Trump's visit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Security Cabinet approved several confidence-building measures, including construction permits for Palestinians near their cities in parts of the West Bank that had previously been off limits, a senior official said. Under interim agreements, 60 percent of the West Bank, known as Area C, site of Israel's settlements, is under Israeli control and Palestinian development there has mostly been forbidden by Israel.
Speaking on condition of anonymity in line with protocol, he said the package also includes economic concessions and opening the border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan.
White House aides have played down expectations for significant progress on the peace process during Trump's stop, casting it as more symbolic than substantive. Yet Trump may still need to engage in some delicate diplomacy following revelations that he disclosed highly classified intelligence Israel obtained about the Islamic State group with top Russian officials, without Israel's permission.
Israel also has expressed concern about the $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia that Trump announced Saturday in Riyadh. Yuval Steinitz, a senior Cabinet minister and Netanyahu confidant, called Saudi Arabia “a hostile country” and said the deal was “definitely something that should trouble us.”
Trump's first overseas trip as president comes as the dynamics between the United States and the region's players are moving in unexpected directions.
While Israeli officials cheered Trump's election, some are now wary of the tougher line he has taken on settlements: urging restraint but not calling for a full halt to construction. Trump has retreated from a campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bending to the same diplomatic and security concerns as other presidents who have made similar promises.
Seeking ‘real deal’
Palestinians, who viewed Trump's victory with some trepidation, are said to have been pleasantly surprised by Trump's openness during a recent meeting with Abbas in Washington.
A senior official who was part of the Palestinian delegation said Trump is planning to try to relaunch peace talks, with a goal of reaching an agreement within a year. The Trump administration rejected a request from the Palestinians to push for an Israeli settlement freeze, but promised to sort out the issue during peace negotiations, according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Jibril Rajoub, a senior Palestinian official close to Abbas, said Trump was a “serious president” who “seeks to have a real deal, not just managing the conflict.”
David Friedman, the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, told the newspaper Israel Hayom that Trump's goal at the start is simply “to begin a discussion that would hopefully lead to peace.”
Friedman attended a celebration Sunday with Netanyahu of Israel's capture of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, days after the White House declined to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area.
The area is home to sensitive religious sites, including the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray. Israeli officials are on edge over the U.S refusal to say the Western Wall is part of Israel.
Israel considers the entire city to be its capital. The international community says the fate of east Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians, must be resolved through negotiations.
The last round of peace talks, led by then-President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, fell apart in 2014.
Greenblatt has quietly done much of the heavy work for the U.S. thus far. The low-profile Greenblatt, who spent about two decades as a lawyer at the Trump Organization before joining the White House, has traveled to the region twice since the inauguration and is in weekly contact with pivotal players from both sides.
Aaron David Miller, a Middle East peace adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, said that despite Greenblatt's positive reviews in the region, there are limits over how much influence he, or any American officials, can have over the process.
“The issue over many years has not been the mediator in the middle - it's the guys sitting on the other sides of the mediators,” said Miller, now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Israeli officials say they are largely in the dark about what ideas Trump might present for peace or what concessions he may demand. Hard-liners who dominate Netanyahu's government grew particularly concerned when White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster voiced support last week for Palestinian “self-determination.”
Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home Party, lamented “a kind of change in the spirit” of Trump's positions since he was elected in November. He urged Netanyahu to reject Palestinian statehood and insist that Jerusalem remain under Israeli sovereignty forever.
While Netanyahu in the past has expressed support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, he has been vague about this goal since Trump took office.
Trump's trip began in Saudi Arabia and takes him, after Israel, to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Francis, to Brussels for a NATO summit and to Sicily for a meeting of leaders of the Group of Seven major industrial nations.