By Chris Doyle
23 May 2017
Halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the 9-ton presidential limousine, commonly referred to as “The Beast,” broke down. It had been filled with gas, not diesel. This was during then-President Barack Obama’s trip in 2013, when like his car, his efforts at peace stalled and ultimately got nowhere.
Donald Trump loves to go full throttle. He has just completed the first leg of his overseas odyssey with no hiccups. The second leg is somewhat tougher, moving from Riyadh to Tel Aviv for 26 hours of negotiating political traps and minefields.
This will not be easy for a man on his first visit to Israel, and who is still new to the global diplomatic circus. Few take seriously Trump’s claim 14 months ago to have studied Israel-Palestine in detail, “greater by far than anybody else.”
A few months ago, the Trump-Israel relationship was in bright honeymoon mode. Israeli far-right politicians and settlers assumed his election would equal a settlement-building jamboree, and that the US Embassy in Jerusalem was as good as open. As a candidate, Trump proclaimed: “We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” Well, not yet.
Just as President Trump has changed his tune on various issues from candidate Trump, so too on Israel. The embassy, meant to have been moved on Day 1, will remain very much in Tel Aviv. Trump has made clear he would like Israel to hold back on settlements, and that he has a stated preference for a two-state solution, much to the distaste of most of Israel’s Cabinet. The tough Trump language and tone on Iran will be just a small consolation.
A measure of how his halo in Israel has slipped was on display at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exploded in rage because Cabinet ministers, including leaders of parties, were refusing to attend the meet-and-greet ceremony at the airport for Trump, reportedly slighted that only the president, prime minister and Parliament speaker would shake Trump’s hand.
Netanyahu was forced to order them to do so, even as Israeli protocol gurus were busily upgrading the welcome carpet, having seen the lavish and warm welcome Trump received in Riyadh.
The Palestinians get a very brief look in. Just like Obama, Trump will make a one-hour flying visit to Bethlehem, emphasizing the interfaith theme of his tour, which will be followed by a visit to the Vatican. Trump will get just a glimmer of life under occupation. It will be hard to miss the wall imprisoning the city, but this is not a wall he should see as “beautiful.”
Politically, Trump’s visit may not push things forward immediately. The White House has played down expectations. He brings warm overtures from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, with the offer of a deal that would see a settlement freeze and a lifting of restrictions on Gaza in exchange for normalization of ties with the GCC.
A realistic ambition is to obtain commitments from all sides to limited confidence-building measures. Israel’s Cabinet pre-empted this by adopting a series of measures designed to alleviate the economic challenges facing Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank. The Palestinians can expect a broadside about incitement to violence, which figured in Trump’s press conference with President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office.
Trump’s visit to the Western Wall is a first for a serving US president. Previous presidents have done so before or after office. Symbolically this matters, but already the White House has ruffled Israeli feathers by first referring to it, accurately, as being in the West Bank. Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer declared that it was in Jerusalem, but did not fall into the trap of saying it was in Israel.
One of the issues for Israel’s far-right is that unlike with Obama, they cannot rush behind Trump’s back to wind up Congress to chastise him. Trump knows this, and can use this political credit as a hard-line supporter of Israel to nudge things in a more favourable direction.
The likelihood is that this visit will determine Trump’s level of willingness to wage a battle for peace in the Middle East. His optimism that “we will get it done” is not shared by Israeli or Palestinians leaders, let alone many in the “Beltway.” Tensions are high, not least with the 50th anniversary of the occupation this June, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in November and a major hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners.
Clashes and an upsurge of violence is more probable. Many diplomats fear another round of Israel-Hamas fighting in Gaza. But for now at least, it is doubtful Trump will want to engage reverse gear, but try to keep trundling forward. His retinue will just hope he arrives at the Vatican unscathed.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honours degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries.