President Donald Trump wrapped up a two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank on Tuesday without evidence of progress toward renewing talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
While the president reiterated his desire to broker a peace deal, his visit produced no announcement on steps toward renewing negotiations.
Still, a senior administration official traveling with the president told reporters on Air Force One that the White House was satisfied with the visit.
“You can’t just walk in on Day One and sign a deal that no one has gotten done in 35 years,” said the official, who under the ground rules of the briefing could not be further identified. The purpose of Trump’s trip, the official said, was “to do a lot of listening, build very strong relationships with all the different people, not just the parties involved . . . and try to create a lot of momentum and optimism around the prospect for peace.”
As for follow-up, “The one thing that it probably will be is quiet and discreet,” the official said.
That would be consistent with Trump’s final hours in Israel and the West Bank. In public remarks in the West Bank town of Bethlehem and in Jerusalem, Trump avoided mention of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, and made no references to controversial Jewish settlements or to recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In a much-awaited speech at the Israel Museum, Trump pledged unstinting support for Israel, vowed that he would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and asserted that Israeli and Palestinian leaders were ready to make peace. But he offered no blueprint for movement toward reviving negotiations.
“I’m personally committed to helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve a peace agreement,” Trump said. He added that in his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas it was clear that “the Palestinians are ready to reach for peace,” and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “wants peace.”
“Making peace, however, will not be easy, we all know – both sides will face tough decisions – but with determination, compromise and the belief that peace is possible, Israelis and Palestinians can make a deal,” Trump said.
He tried to contrast his approach with that of former President Barack Obama, despite substantially strengthened security ties under the Obama administration.
“America’s security partnership with Israel is stronger than ever. Under my administration you see the difference. Big, big, beautiful difference,” Trump said to loud applause from his audience, which included members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet and other officials.
He drew more applause when he said: “Iran’s leaders routinely call for Israel’s destruction. Not with Donald J. Trump, believe me.”
“We are telling you right now that Iran will not have nuclear weapons,” he added.
In introductory remarks, Netanyahu voiced hope that Trump’s efforts would help forge peace with Arab states, which, he said, shared with Israel a common concern about Iran.
In a joint appearance with Trump in Bethlehem, Abbas said the Palestinians wanted a peace agreement based on the two-state solution: a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem alongside Israel.
“We would like to reiterate our commitment to cooperate with you to make peace and achieve an historic peace agreement between us and the Israelis,” he added, echoing similar pledges from Netanyahu.
Both sides are wary of being accused of resisting Trump’s peace efforts or being cast as obstructing the resumption of talks.
Saying he hoped Trump would go down in history as the president who brought peace to Israelis and Palestinians, Abbas said in English; “I extend my hand to you to be your partner in this noble and possible mission.”
Abbas, who has been politically weakened at home because of the continuing stalemate in peace efforts, appeared to be basking in the attention from an American president following a meeting in Washington earlier this month.
Netanyahu, for his part, got his government to approve a series of modest gestures to ease conditions for the Palestinians in the West Bank on the eve of Trump’s visit. The measures included extending the operating hours of the Allenby Bridge border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, expanding a West Bank industrial zone and allowing Palestinian construction in areas of the West Bank under full Israeli control.
But there was little public evidence of prodding by Trump or his aides of either side to make more substantial concessions.
In Bethlehem, Trump nodded to Israeli complaints of payments by the Palestinian Authority to families of Palestinians jailed in Israel and those killed in attacks on Israelis. “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded and even rewarded,” he said.
In Israel the overall tenor of Trump’s trip – which included a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Tuesday – and the warmth exhibited between the president and Netanyahu contrasted sharply with the Israeli prime minister’s tense relationship with Obama. Netanyahu effusively praised Trump before his museum address and sprang to his feet to lead applause for him several times.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the rightist Jewish Home party, a key member of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, summed up the prevailing mood among officials in the wake of Trump’s visit. “We’re in a new era,” he said.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.