Trump in the Middle East: In search of a road map

Expectations for Trump’s visit were so low absence of major blunder will be greeted with relief

 

He has called it the “ultimate deal”, and on his first foray on to the fraught terrain of Middle East peacemaking this week, Donald Trump will presumably have gained a new insight into just how formidable a task he faces. At separate meetings with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Trump spoke respectfully to both sides and received assurances of their willingness to negotiate. He departed declaring he was hopeful a deal that eluded his predecessors could finally be done.

Yet there was no masking the scale of the obstacles or the absence of a plan to surmount them. A right-wing Israeli government has shown little inclination to kick-start a new peace process, while divisions within the Palestinian leadership have tested its ability to speak with one voice. Trump’s remarks during his two-day visit were striking as much for what they omitted as what they contained. To the delight of Israeli hardliners, he did not refer to the two-state solution nor to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Nor did he criticise Israel’s illegal settlements in occupied territories. To the relief of many others, however, he did not say anything about moving the US embassy to Jerusalem nor recognise the city as Israel’s capital.

The broad outline of a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians has been known for decades. A useful template is the 15-year-old Arab Peace Initiative, under which Arab states would recognise Israel in return for a Palestinian state, with pre-1967 borders and a capital in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu once said he could support the initiative “with modifications”, while Abbas has recently held out the hope of reviving the plan. It is to be hoped that Saudi Arabia can use its relationship with the new US administration, underlined during Trump’s visit to Riyadh in recent days, to revive the initiative it first advanced in 2002.

Expectations for Trump’s visit to the Middle East were so low that the absence of a major diplomatic blunder will be greeted with relief. There was no fresh setback. But Trump appears no nearer to closing that deal than he was last week.

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