The Art of a Middle East Deal

Jewish Light Editorial

Just as the St. Louis area was engulfed by torrential rains over the past few weeks, a deluge of breaking news has been overtaking our ability to process it, from North Korea to France, from health care to budget battles in Washington and Jefferson City.

 The event that could have the biggest effect on elusive Middle East peace happened in Washington: The first face-to-face meeting at the White House took place between President Donald Trump and a severely weakened Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

In his statement after his talks with Abbas, Trump said that he and the Palestinian leader “reaffirmed the commitment of both the United States and the Palestinian Authority to achieving a genuine and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” 

To his credit, Trump directly urged Abbas to “make a clear commitment to preventing inflammatory rhetoric and to stop incitement, and to continue strengthening efforts to combat terrorism.”

Trump also raised concerns about payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have committed terrorist acts.  

Ideally, Trump will have more success in this effort than other recent presidents had. They expressed similar concerns, only to have them ignored by Abbas and his ruthless predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Trump had tweeted that it was his “honor” to host Abbas at the White House. But that ill-advised choice of words was later deleted when wiser heads prevailed upon him not to inflate the flaccid reputation of the hapless Palestinian leader who is now extremely unpopular in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 

Gaza continues to be under the control of Hamas, the Islamist extremist affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Saying that it was an honor to host Abbas, who remains the chairman of the terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization, was a very poor choice of words.

For his part, Abbas, now in his third four-year term of office, reaffirmed his support for a “comprehensive settlement” and for a two-state solution.

Significantly, on the eve of the Abbas-Trump meeting, Hamas released an official document of principles that dropped its call for Israel’s destruction. The same document said it would cut ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The statement was issued as Khaled Meshaal, the long-serving Hamas leader in Gaza, was stepping down as official leader of the radical party

In a letter to the editor in The New York Times, Jonathan Greenblatt, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called the Hamas gambit by Meshaal an obvious effort to depict itself as more “moderate” as the weakened Abbas basked in the glow of being hosted by the president of the United States at the White House.

After the Trump-Abbas meeting, the White House announced that the president would visit Jerusalem later this month on his first foreign trip, after stops at the Vatican and Saudi Arabia. That nation, along with other members of the Arab League, has indicated it is prepared to have fully normal relations with Israel in exchange for the setting up of a Palestinian state — a tall order, but an encouraging sign of Arab moderation towards Israel.

In his breezily optimistic manner, Trump has expressed confidence that the United States could play an effective mediating role in bringing about peace between Israel and the Palestinians. While Trump’s can-do demeanor can be refreshing, it cannot substitute for a serious, painstaking effort in search of a two-state solution, which the League of Arab States has already said its members would support.

In a thoughtful analysis in the Times, Peter Baker put it this way:

“Presidents and kings and prime ministers and diplomats and special envoys have labored for a century in a futile search for peace.” 

If the president can use his self-described art of the deal to achieve what a century of other leaders have failed to attain, he will deserve the praise of the world.  He cannot be faulted for trying, but he will need to temper his customary bravado and get down to the nitty-gritty of diplomacy if he wants to achieve his ultimate real estate breakthrough.