The heart of the deal

If you count yourself among the pro-Israel community, Trump’s victory signaled a markedly positive change. For the first time, the GOP platform lacked any mention of the “two state solution”. Settler leaders were invited to the inauguration, while Abbas couldn’t even get a phone answered. Trump, unlike all previous presidents, will finally fulfill the promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Trump was going to put the pressure back on Iran, and off of Israel. The United Nations would no-more target the Jewish state.

Since entering the White House, many expectations were met. Iran was “put on-notice”, the U.N. put in-line, and settlement-supporter David Friedman appointed Ambassador to Israel. In the first two weeks of the Trump Presidency alone, Israel announced plans for more than 6,000 homes in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, with Washington hardly even shrugging. While with Obama in the White House friction was routine, Israel was now a cherished ally. Supporters of Israel could finally rejoice.

While on Iran and the U.N. the Trump White House seems steady, on the Israeli-Palestinian the honeymoon was cut short. The promised Embassy move planned for “day-one”, was now “under review”, and the law will likely be waived again.

On February 2nd, the White House released a statement detailing its policy toward Israeli settlements. That was the first time the Trump administration expressed the slightest hint of displeasure with continued Israeli settlement. Bilateral discussions between Washington and Jerusalem commenced in an effort to formalize an official understanding.

Jerusalem had hoped to have an agreement with the White House announced before Netanyahu would visit on February 15th, but that didn’t come to fruition. At their White House meeting, President Trump told Prime Minister Netanyahu “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

Ultimately on March 2nd Prime Minister Netanyahu announced “self-imposed” restraints for construction in Judea and Samaria. On April 2nd — just one month later, Netanyahu announced that “at the American request” the self-imposed restraints would apply to Jerusalem too. Since the White House February 2nd statement, Israel has announced exactly zero new tenders. May 12th 2017, was “Day-100” of this de-facto unannounced settlement-freeze.

Despite being marginalized throughout the transition and first days of the administration, in early February the Trump administration made contact with the Palestinians. On February 10th Palestinian security officials met their American counterparts in D.C., and days later CIA Director Pompeo met Abbas in Ramallah (perhaps even for a second time, after meeting first in the beginning of the month).

Essentially, the Trump administrations Israel-policy has undergone a tectonic shift, and yet hardly anyone noticed. While in the first 13 days of the administration, Israel announced plans for 6,066 new units, the following 100 days under American pressure Israel announced ZERO.

How did this all come about, and with no shock waves?

Perhaps President Trump has taken a page from the Obama Iran Talks playbook, and decided to keep the diplomacy in the dark. Unlike Obama’s Israel “daylight-policy” — intentionally putting differences with Israel out in the open, Trump has clearly re-embraced the “no-daylight” rule. On May 3rd — the day Abbas met President Trump at the White House, Sean Spicer indeed confirmed the existence of “backroom-diplomacy”.

Despite the effort to keep it all under-wraps, there’s sufficient open-sourced information that when processed and analyzed properly could glean precious insight into the true state of the deal. So let’s begin:

If you’ve listened to what President Trump has had to say lately, you’d (rightly) assume that President Trump has a plan for peace in the Middle East. President Trump says it’d be easier to achieve than most believe, yet few could articulate Trump’s thinking and prescription for a “deal”.

Just one week after the White House February 2nd statement, and mere days before Netanyahu was set to arrive at the White House, Trump granted an interview to the Israeli daily “Israel-Hayom”. President Trump articulated what he finds unhelpful with settlement growth. “Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” Trump proclaimed. Some irony that Trump voiced this belief to a Sheldon Adelson owned paper.

Days later, at Netanyahu’s last security cabinet meeting (February 12th) prior to departing to Washington for his first White House visit with President Trump, an extremely illuminating exchange was leaked from the meeting. Netanyahu said that he told Trump that he supports the two-state solution and a final status agreement, but stressed that he told the president that the Palestinians are unwilling and detailed the reasons why a peace deal cannot be reached at this time.

“They (the Palestinians) will want, they will make concessions,” was Trump’s response, Netanyahu told the ministers, the official said.Netanyahu revealed the details of his phone call with Trump after Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked pressed him to urge the U.S. president to take the two-state solution off the table, while complimenting him on his diplomacy skills. “You have the ability, he appreciates you,” the two told Netanyahu. “You can convince him to drop the issue of the two states.”The senior official said that Netanyahu replied that he doesn’t believe that was possible. “Trump believes in a deal and in running peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu stressed. “We should be careful and not do things that will cause everything to break down. We mustn’t get into a confrontation with him.”

The exchange suggests that Trump and Netanyahu differ on the very nature of the impasse to peace to a deal. While Netanyahu stressed that Abbas isn’t interested in peace, Trump insisted that Abbas is no obstacle at all.

Upon arriving in DC, Netanyahu’s chief of staff was furious over the leaking of sensitive information from the cabinet meeting, and went as far as to threaten that the cabinet ministers undergo a polygraph test to expose the leaker. At a minimum, that should be treated as testament to the authenticity of the report.

Before we move to other points of information, let’s first underscore something. Just as Obama abandoned Obama’s Israel “daylight” policy, similarly, Netanyahu very much doesn’t want a “confrontation” with Trump. There are likely a few reasons for Netanyahu’s newfound submissiveness. First of all, Netanyahu understands Trump’s deep desire to achieve the “ultimate deal” and doesn’t want to be perceived as the intransigent one. Second of all, Netanyahu is mindful of Trump’s unpredictability and temperament — Netanyahu actually experienced it in December of 2015. Third of all, Netanyahu has seen the political cost of his wrangling’s with Obama, and is worried that confronting Trump could cost him GOP support too.So if the shifts in policy didn’t make much noise, perhaps this is why; the disputes are being intentionally kept in the dark by both parties.

Why does Trump find it imperative that the diplomatic efforts stay hidden?

Trump knows the fierce opposition Obama/Hillary/Kerry faced when demanding concessions of Israel, and is doing everything in his power to avoid that pitfall. While Obama made “daylight” with Israel a policy as a means of demonstrating his “neutrality” that ultimately necessarily fed his opposition at home, and emboldened Bibi’s support abroad. Trump is doing everything to keep daylight away.

So while Obama made it his business to bypass Israel on his first trip to the region, Trump is making it his business to visit it on his first trip abroad. This is no principled stance, rather a shrewd political move. GOP voters are far more pro-Israel than Democrats, and an open confrontation with Netanyahu would surely complicate things for this White House.

Returning to our search for clues offering insight into Trump’s thinking on Israel

On March 10th President Trump held his first phone call with Mahmoud Abbas. Some weeks later, transcripts of Trump’s questions to Abbas were leaked. Trump asked: “You think Bibi is a partner for peace”? “You think he (Netanyahu) could supply the goods”? “You think we could reach with him the ultimate deal”? The questions indicate that Trump sees Netanyahu as the bigger/true obstacle to peace. Additionally, by expressing that belief to Abbas, Trump seemingly considers Abbas a true partner, and is fine with Abbas knowing it. (As an aside, within days of the call, Palestinians accused Israel of eavesdropping on it, but the story purports to have gotten the transcripts from Arab sources.)

On March 18th, while at Mar-a-Lago, Trump met with Alan Dershowitz and discussed “ideas on the Middle East”. Some days later, Ha’aretz reported per an Israeli source that “Dershowitz delivered Trump’s message that he is eager for a peace agreement and believes such a deal is possible today.” When contacted by Ha’aretz, Dershowitz didn’t deny the call to Netanyahu, but would only elaborate on his discussions with Trump. “The president told me he loves Israel and likes Netanyahu and said a few times he wants to get a deal between Israel and the Palestinians,” Dershowitz added. “He knows very well the possible elements of the deal,” Dershowitz continued. “The president told me he thinks Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants to get a deal with Israel and that he [Trump] thinks that the time is ripe for a deal and that it is possible.” Dershowitz said Trump was aware of his friendship with Netanyahu, and Netanyahu values his (Dershowitz’s) opinion.

Seemingly, the President recruited Alan Dershowitz in an effort to get Netanyahu on-board his peace-plans. Presumably Netanyahu left his White House visit unfazed by Trump’s persuasions. Here too Trump expresses his belief that Abbas is already ready to deal.

Based on all the information we’ve analyzed, it’s fair to make a few basic assumptions on Trump’s views on achieving peace.

First; it’s clear Trump considers the conflict as fairly easy to solve (in 2004 he purportedly even went as far as to claim he could do it in “two weeks”). Second; Trump considers himself uniquely qualified to achieve this goal. Perhaps the reason for the aforementioned beliefs, is Trump’s view that the conflict is essentially a real-estate dispute (as evident from his comments to “Yisrael-Hayom”. Taken together, we may now know why Trump considers Israel — the real-estate holder here, as the primary party capable of either locking or unlocking the deal.

If you think these views are new to Trump, you’re mistaken. In December of 2015 Trump told the AP “I have a real question as to whether or not both sides want to make it,” “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things”

Ever since Netanyahu accepted the “two state solution” in 2009, he tirelessly sought to demonstrate its impracticality. In essence, he accepted the solution in theory, but not in practice. “In theory it could work, but not with the current players.”

For the duration of the Obama-years, Netanyahu consistently outlined two prerequisites for peace. They included a Palestinian recognition of Israel’s Jewish identity, and Israeli security control along the Jordan valley. Netanyahu’s was often derided for placing “preconditions”, but to Netanyahu, they were mere tests. If the Palestinians couldn’t accept these prerequisites, they couldn’t be treated as partners for peace. Netanyahu routinely highlighted how the crux of the conflict is not about land or “Israeli-occupation”, rather about the ‘existence’ of a Jewish state in any boundary.

When Netanyahu on February 15th visited President Trump at the White House, Netanyahu repeated that narrative. But since then, Netanyahu’s focus moved elsewhere — to The Taylor Force Act. The Act is designed to pressure Abbas to stop the Palestinian Authority’s practice of “paying for slaying”. While the Israeli government has historically been wary of efforts to cut funding from the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu has now embraced it. Netanyahu is hoping that Abbas’s refusal to comply with this demand would illustrate his true colors, and as a result Trump’s opinion on Abbas and the practicality of the “two state solution” would change.

Ahead of Abbas’s meeting with Trump in the White House, Israeli officials were practically pleading with the White House that they make this demand of Abbas. They hoped that just as President Trump raised the settlement issue with Netanyahu, he would raise this issue with Abbas. Not only did Trump not make the demand, he also didn’t even mention it. Trump even spared Abbas the prospects of being asked the question by the press. Trump actually said it was “an honor” to meet Abbas, and the readout actually said “President Trump & Abbas reaffirmed the joint determination of the Palestinian Authority & the USA to combating violence & terrorism”. Not only did Trump not press Abbas on the terror payments, he embraced him as a fighter of violence and terror.

Trump clearly is unfazed by these arguments, and is plowing ahead. While the Senate would like to move forward with the Taylor Force Act, the White House has made it clear that it won’t endorse the bill, “and they do not expect that to change anytime soon”. Considering President Trump’s view on the conflict, naturally he sees the establishment of a Palestinian state as the full solution to the conflict. Palestinian support for terror — in his opinion, is a product of “Israeli occupation”, so focusing on Palestinian terror would be misguided. Perhaps for this reason the State Department seemingly stands with Palestinian terrorists in Israeli prisons.

The Taylor Force Act isn’t the only pro-Israel piece of legislation this White House has put the brakes on. The list includes legislation to force the embassy relocation, recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s, or efforts to block Boeing sales to Iran.

While under Obama congress played a monumental — & often confrontational pro-Israel role, with Trump in the White House they’ve become trivial. While Netanyahu could count on GOP (and Donald Trump!) support with Obama in the White House, with Trump in the White House he could count on no-one. Republican pro-Israel activists, who’ve routinely highlighted Obama’s anti-Israel initiatives, are now highlighting Trump’s virtues. Obama has moved the bar so low, that many are just happy “Trump isn’t Obama”, and unlike Obama, Trump has far-right defenders. Netanyahu has never felt more alone in DC.

What caused the departure from the initial unequivocal support for Israel?

Some will point to the campaign Arab leaders embarked-on to dissuade Trump from moving the embassy. Perhaps Flynn’s ouster — whose expertise Kushner relied upon, downgraded Kushner’s involvement, & sidelined the Israeli preferred outside-in approach. With Flynn gone, the Trump-team necessarily turned to the NSC Obama-holdovers to run the shop. Another factor could be Defense Secretary Mattis and his CENTCOM views of Israel, whose influence surely grew with Flynn’s ouster. Or maybe it was effective Palestinian use of the Susan Rice suggested conduit to Trump — Ron Lauder. Or perhaps, it was all of the above.

There’s also a more sinister understanding. The only GOP candidate to proudly proclaim to stay “neutral” when approaching the conflict wasn’t at all sincere in his pro-Israel pronouncement. Perhaps Donald Trump only sang the song so his campaign and inaugural committee would be infused with Sheldon Adelson cash. Indeed that nozzle has now been shut.

Whatever the intention, ultimately it created a robust political cover for President Trump. The amount of pro-Israel cred/political capital Trump amassed as president-elect & in his first weeks in office was just YUGE. He was resoundingly embraced by the Israeli right & their supporters in the USA. Trump feels politically secure embarking on a peace initiative, & climbing Masada will make him feel all the more so.

Netanyahu’s Balancing Act

Netanyahu is very much aware of Trump’s urge to achieve the “ultimate deal”, and in no way wants to be blamed for his failure. Confronting Trump as he did Obama isn’t currently in the cards. Netanyahu is faced with saying yes, while hoping for Abbas to say “no”. Netanyahu can only continue this act so long as he doesn’t need to cede ground (figuratively and literally). At some point, if Trump makes specific demands, Netanyahu will be forced into a confrontation.

Summary

While we don’t know Trump’s peace-plan, we have established his understanding of the conflict. That, is more important that the details of a plan. Plans change, views don’t.

Update:

After publishing this article I came across some more relevant information.

On Settlements: In the AP interview referenced above, Trump said settlements were a “huge sticking point” in talks. That’s something he hasn't said (at least publicly) all of 2016, and even to this day.

On his approach to peace talks: At an RJC appearance (12/3/15), Trump was asked about the status of Jerusalem to which he refused to answer. But between the lines, Trump revealed his approach to peace talks. Trump said “If you’re going to make a deal — …you’ve got to go in and do it nicely so everyone’s happy.” That is what we’ve outlined above, which is his desire to keep all differences in the dark. Trump said further; “I’d like to go with a clean slate and just say just, let’s go, everybody’s even, we love everybody and let’s see if we can do something.” That comment explains his refusal (as we’ve outlined above) to place demands (whether on incitement or on the “pay for slay” program) on the Palestinians. If you have a few more minutes, i’d recommend you watch the video of his comments, which I believe confirms the thesis outlined above.

David Shor