President Donald Trump made his first significant venture into peacemaking in the Middle East on Wednesday, inviting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House to discuss how to get along with Israel.
Despite a daunting history of decades of failure, he pronounced that finding a solution to the conflict may not be as hard as people think. It was part of the vigorous dose of optimism on display as Trump and Abbas showered each other with praise.
Trump told Abbas he wants his signature on the final peace agreement. Abbas complimented Trump’s negotiating skills and said he finally saw a path forward.
“Mr. President, with you we have hope,” Abbas said.
Several U.S. presidents before Trump have come into office expressing confidence that they were the ones who would finally bring peace to the region. They learned soon enough the complicated dynamics that have endured over a half-century of struggle.
Trump says it shouldn’t be so hard if there were two willing partners.
“It’s something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” the president said.
Trump said he was committed to working with Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement but that any agreement could not be imposed by the United States.
“The Palestinians and Israelis must work together to reach an agreement that allows both peoples to live, worship, and thrive and prosper in peace,” Trump said.
Mr. President, with you we have hope.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
Abbas called for a two-state solution, which would establish an independent Palestinian nation alongside Israel.
“It’s about time for Israel to end its occupation of our people and of our land after 50 years,” Abbas said. “We are the only remaining people in the world that still live under occupation.”
What went unsaid Wednesday was Trump’s willingness in February to back off a two-state framework. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump said at a news conference alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Optimism is not high in the region. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dennis Ross said Israelis and Palestinians were as pessimistic today about a deal as they had been in the past 30 years. But he said there was great concern that destabilization could be exploited by other actors, as has happened in Syria and Iraq.
“Whenever there is a vacuum, the worst forces fill it,” Ross said during a talk at the Washington Institute, a research center dedicated to Middle East policy.
Abbas needs Trump’s support to legitimize his power, and Ross encouraged Trump to press Abbas to make concessions, such as ceasing sending money to jailed Palestinians who had killed Israelis.
It's something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.
President Donald Trump
The two presidents ate steak and halibut for lunch in the Cabinet Room. Trump was joined by his point man in the peace efforts, Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, and Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
In February, Trump had told Netanyahu that the road to peace included Israelis’ willingness to “show some flexibility” and the Palestinians would have to acknowledge and reduce some of the “hate” for Israel.
On Wednesday, Trump reiterated those comments. He said there could not be lasting peace unless Palestinian leaders spoke in a unified voice against “violence and hate.”
“There’s such hatred,” Trump said.
The president declared that he was ready to “help unlock” the economic potential for the Palestinian people on the road to a peace deal.
“We will be working so hard to get it done,” Trump said. “It’s been a long time, but we will be working diligently. And I think there’s a very, very good chance, and I think you feel the same way.”