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Trump bungles his quest for the 'ultimate deal' in the Middle East

Trump bungles his quest for the 'ultimate deal' in the Middle East
Smoke from Israeli tear gas fills the air during clashes near the border in the east of Gaza City, Gaza Strip on Dec. 27. (Mohammed Saber / EPA-EFE)

It's not an indictment of President Trump that he failed in his first year in office to broker what he once called "the ultimate deal" — an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. After all, the effort to end that bitter conflict, which has been underway in one form or another for well over 100 years, also eluded his recent predecessors, despite intense effort and creative diplomacy.

Trump can be faulted, however, for his arrogance, his ignorance and his shortsightedness, which ultimately made an unsatisfactory situation worse. Although he boasted that a deal was within reach — and "not as difficult as people have thought over the years" — and although he appointed a team of emissaries to explore the possibilities of peace (including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner), efforts to move forward have been overshadowed by Trump's own words, actions and intemperate tweets. He has emboldened extremists in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps, alienated America's allies and sowed the same sort of confusion about U.S. intentions in this arena that has clouded other aspects of foreign policy.

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Most recently, reversing decades of bipartisan U.S. policy, Trump decided to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a premature and provocative step but one that cheered many of his supporters. The president portrayed his action as a simple recognition of the reality that the seat of Israel's government is in (West) Jerusalem. In defending the decision, his advisers also suggested that the move didn't commit the U.S. to any particular view of Jerusalem's ultimate borders or the future of East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967.

[Trump] needs to stop pandering for domestic audiences and get serious about bringing the parties back to the negotiating table.


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Yet the Palestinians don't see Trump's actions in such innocuous terms, and Trump's own words aren't likely to reassure them. This week he tweeted: "We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table" — an inscrutable statement that could be read to endorse Israeli claims to all of Jerusalem. If that's indeed what he means, it would deal a serious blow to hopes for a negotiated two-state solution.

In the same series of tweets, Trump complained that "we pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect . . . [W]ith the Palestinians no longer willing to talk peace, why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?" (Some of the payments take the form of contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA. Even some prominent Israelis believe it would be a mistake for the U.S. to abruptly cut off those funds.)

The Trump administration already had a credibility problem with many Palestinians because of his equivocal attitude toward a two-state solution, in which an independent Palestinian state would exist alongside Israel. In February Trump said: "I'm looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like. I can live with either one." Trump's ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a longtime supporter of right-wing Israeli causes, has continued to fuel suspicion that the administration is hostile to Palestinian aspirations. Recently the Israeli Broadcasting Corp. quoted Friedman as urging the State Department to stop using the word "occupied" to describe the Israeli military presence in territories Israel captured in 1967 that are claimed by the Palestinians.

The administration's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital left it isolated at the United Nations. It was condemned by the U.N. General Assembly by a vote of 128 to 9, with 35 abstentions. A similar resolution in the Security Council had the support of 14 out of 15 members — but was defeated when the U.S. exercised its veto.

Yet the Trump administration's response to this overwhelming opposition wasn't to reconsider its position; it was to throw a party at the U.S. mission at the U.N. for the "Friends of the U.S." — i.e., only those that voted against or abstained on the General Assembly resolution.

The Middle East peace process was ailing well before Trump came into office; he and his son-in-law can hardly be blamed for that. But they need to understand that the bedraggled and much-maligned two-state solution remains at the moment the only realistic hope for resolving the conflict. If they want to move beyond empty bluster toward a fair and durable solution, they need to stop pandering for domestic audiences and get serious about bringing the parties back to the negotiating table for tough talks on thorny issues. That process will of course be "difficult."

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