Trump Admin hits roadblocks for Israeli-Palestinian talks

WASHINGTON – It was one of the most dramatic moments of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s June testimony. Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the top U.S. diplomat claimed that the Palestinian Authority had “changed their policy” and “their intent is to cease the payments to the family members of those who have committed murder.” After months of intensive US efforts, Tillerson’s statements suggested that the Palestinians had backtracked on a longstanding policy,  handing the Trump administration its first victory on the peace process front.

However, only one day later, the momentum disappeared. The head of the PA prisoners affairs department asserted that Tillerson’s remarks were “not true and this statement is an aggression against the Palestinian people.” An Israeli official also confirmed  that the PA was continuing its controversial payment policy. Next week marks the six month anniversary for the current administration and the consensus is that the decades long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has frustrated both Democratic and Republican administrations, has not been smooth sailing for the Trump White House.

Elliott Abrams, a former senior official in the George W. Bush administration and Tillerson’s preferred choice for Deputy Secretary of State, told Jewish Insider, “There is a gap now between the optimism of the transition period and the very early days of the administration and the lack of actual progress. For example, it’s July and there has been no meeting yet between [PM Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Mahmoud] Abbas.”

In addition to Israeli ire with terror payments, the Palestinians have expressed increasing concern with the Israeli government’s settlement policy since January 20th. As top advisor Jared Kushner flew into Israel, the Israeli government broke ground on the first new Israeli settlement in 25 years. Nabil Abu Rdainah, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman, called the new settlement “a grave escalation and an attempt to foil efforts by the American administration to revive negotiations.”

During the campaign, Trump repeatedly promised to secure the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. The former real estate mogul insisted that Kushner was the best possible Middle East envoy in January. Despite the deep differences between the two sides, Trump confidently asserted, “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians – none whatsoever.”

Given the tension before direct talks have even begun, Grant Rumley, a researcher at the Foundations for the Defense of Democracies, explained that the Trump team “seem to be getting bogged down in the negotiations about the negotiations, which is kind of a staple of the peace process these days.”

In a break from previous administrations, the President has refused to declare his support for the two state solution or a Palestinian state under any borders. While Rumley praised envoy Jason Greenblatt’s efforts to reach out to the Palestinian public, including a visit to the Jalazone refugee camp, he underscored the limitations of the Trump administration’s approach. “Ultimately they (Palestinians) still want to know that this administration envisions a two state solution the way Obama, Bush and Clinton did before them,” Rumley, the co-author of a new biography on Abbas, said. “I am not sure Abbas knows how far he can go with this without these assurances. For any big push to happen, the Palestinians will want to know it ends where previous administrations stated the goal is.” Citing the George W. Bush administration’s Road Map in 2003, Rumley clarified that Palestinians were willing to accept a program with steps such as quashing the Second Intifada if there was a clearly stated endgame of Palestinian independence in viable borders.

In addition to Trump’s unwillingness to affirm a two state solution, tensions with Ramallah escalated after Trump’s meeting  with Abbas in Bethlehem. “You tricked me in DC! You talked there about your commitment to peace, but the Israelis showed me your involvement in incitement,” Trump reportedly yelled at the Palestinian leader, leaving Abbas stunned, according to Channel 2’s veteran correspondent Udi Segall.

At the same time, Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf Institute, credits the President for his active involvement on this issue. “The designation of Jared Kushner, the President’s trusted son-in-law, as the point person is an indication that this is (led by) the White House and not the State Department. That means the President put some amount of his personal and political prestige on the line,” he said.

However, despite the six trips by Greenblatt to the region including his meetings this week in Israel and the West Bank, Ibish is far more skeptical. “There isn’t any indication that they (Trump administration) have any new ideas. The most relevant stuff they seem to be pursuing is pretty standard,” he noted. Ibish cited the idea of working with Arab Gulf states to sweeten a deal with Israel, a proposal during the Obama administration that never succeeded and would still be extremely challenging to successfully implement. While Ibish approved of the decision not to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he cautioned about excessive praise for this decision. “Dodging a bullet is not a reason to have a party,” Ibish noted.

Some experts were more optimistic about the Trump administration’s approach. Daniel Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel, said, “I give them high marks for demonstrating the President’s personal interest and commitment both to Israel’s security and helping the Palestinians achieve their aspirations.” While many analysts have cited the considerable differences between the Obama and Trump policies on the issue including the 2009 call for a settlement freeze, the 2016 UN Security Council resolution (UNSC 2334) and frequent harsh criticism of Jerusalem by former Secretary of State John Kerry, Shapiro offered an alternative viewpoint.  “Some of the language is a little bit different but I think the overall policy is much more similar,” he noted. “The commitments demonstrated to Israel’s security is also quite similar and important. The desire to engage Arab states more is also similar. The insistence on a sustained Palestinian commitment is also very consistent. I actually think there is much more continuity than change.”

Yet, this relative optimism appears somewhat detached from the reality on the ground. No progress has been made on any final status issue and direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians are still non-existent with Abbas and Netanyahu regularly trading insults.  “I don’t know anybody who works on this closely and professionally who has any confidence that the administration has much of a shot of doing anything where its predecessors failed,” Ibish emphasized.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that White House spokesman Josh Raffel declined multiple interview requests for this article. In fact, Raffel was not asked for comment for this specific article. We regret this error. 

This post was updated on 07-17-2017 

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