Vowing to achieve where successive U.S. governments have failed, President Trump hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Wednesday and expressed broad if unsubstantiated confidence that he might be able to broker "the toughest deal" — peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
"I've always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians; let's prove them wrong," Trump said, Abbas at his side. "I will do whatever is necessary to facilitate the agreement — to mediate, to arbitrate, anything ..."
Later, as the two leaders sat down to a working lunch in the White House Cabinet Room, Trump added that a resolution to what is generally considered one of the most intractable conflicts in the world was "something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years."
Abbas responded with optimism and praise for Trump's dealmaking ability, even though his list of Palestinian requirements for peace was unchanged from the one that has been aired during decades of earlier failed negotiations. Those include a viable, independent Palestinian state next to Israel, with its capital in East Jerusalem — the so-called two-state solution, which Trump has not endorsed.
"Mr. President, you have the determination and the desire to bring [a deal] to fruition," Abbas said, speaking classical Arabic through an interpreter. "We hope, God willing, we are coming to a new opportunity, a new horizon to bring it about."
Despite the opening flourishes of praise and goodwill, the meeting between Trump and Abbas was expected to become more uncomfortable behind closed doors, as the administration laid out a series of demands.
Trump has been described by aides as being singularly fixated on delivering a Middle East peace deal, entrusting the portfolio to his son-in-law Jared Kushner despite Kushner's financial connections to the building of settlements on land claimed by Palestinians.
The White House went out of its way to build up Abbas during the visit, giving in to requests for a lunch with Trump beyond their meeting, as well as that the Palestinian flag be placed behind Trump while the two leaders made statements about the visit, a person close to the White House said.
The White House felt that giving Abbas those symbolic concessions would help set the conditions for a better relationship and create an opening to demand that Abbas shut down terror incitement, stop payments by the Palestinian Authority to the families of those killed or imprisoned in terrorist attacks against Israelis, refrain from lobbying the United Nations for additional resolutions against Israel, and get on board toward a peace deal.
But when it comes to what an eventual solution should look like, Trump has told close advisors that he's not picky about the details, or even the broad outlines.
Trump has expressed a willingness to jettison the long-standing U.S. stance that any resolution should be based on a two-state solution, hoping that would spur the two sides to look for more creative solutions. But other members of his administration, including Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have said the United States remains committed to a two-state solution.
He has also threatened to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which would effectively recognize the disputed city as Israel's capital and infuriate the Palestinians. Although Trump seems to have backed off publicly planning such a relocation, his vice president, Mike Pence, reiterated this week that it was still under consideration — although that's the position that most U.S. administrations have taken for years, without ever carrying through.
"President Trump stands without apology for Israel, and he always will," Pence told a group of Israeli diplomats and others gathered Tuesday on the White House grounds to mark Israeli Independence Day. Trump previously hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.
Fundamental issues as well as small details have sunk previous attempts to solve one of the most challenging foreign policy riddles any U.S. president faces, and many experts remain skeptical about whether Trump has the knowledge or patience to make good on the bold vows he made Wednesday.
"Never in decades of involvement [in the Middle East peace process] have I heard a U.S. president more confident with less prospect," Aaron David Miller, a longtime Mideast negotiator for Democratic and Republican administrations, said via Twitter.
J Street, a liberal, pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington that is often critical of Trump policy, said in a statement that it welcomed the president's "determination" but added that he would have to unequivocally commit to a two-state solution "without further delay if he is serious about pursuing peace."
Daniel Shapiro, the last Obama administration ambassador to Israel, said he was glad to see the White House effort but hoped Trump's aides learned from past mistakes and failures.
"Not sure if [Netanyahu] or Abbas is more nervous," Shapiro said on Twitter. "Both could find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being asked 2 do hard things, saying no 2 [Trump] & shifting blame."
Asked what was different this time around, given the repeated failures of past administrations to reach a Middle East accord, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said it was Trump: "I think the man is different."
"This president's style is one to develop a personal bond with individuals," Spicer added in a briefing with reporters. "And I think you saw that today with President Abbas, him talking so kindly about the president."
Personal contact and "backroom diplomacy" will pay dividends for the country, he said.
Trump also hopes to enlist some Sunni Muslim Arab allies in crafting a deal. Several, especially among the Persian Gulf states, have quietly signaled a willingness to cooperate with the administration — and, by extension, with Israel — in exchange for tougher actions against their common enemy, Shiite Muslim Iran.
2:10 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional background and comments from President Trump, President Mahmoud Abbas and White House spokesman Sean Spicer.
10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Trump and Abbas.
9:05 a.m.: This article was updated with Abbas' arrival at the White House.