Trump presses Netanyahu and Abbas at UN meetings but peace settlement remains elusive

2017/09/24 Issue: 124 Page: 15

The Arab Weekly
Gregory Aftandilian

US President Donald Trump used the occasion of the UN General Assembly to meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestin­ian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about moving the peace process forward but the latter was more enthusiastic about such dis­cussions than the former.

Trump did not address the Israe­li-Palestinian issue in his formal General Assembly speech (which he used primarily to bash North Korea and Iran) but took advantage of sideline opportunities in New York for talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the hope of restarting the moribund Israeli- Palestinian peace process.

Even before his meeting with Netanyahu, Trump took to Twitter to say: “Peace in the Middle East would be a truly great legacy for ALL people.” By capitalising the word “all” Trump meant the Israe­lis, the Palestinians and the other Arab peoples of the region.

Trump’s emphasis on the Israeli- Palestinian issue was something of a surprise to Netanyahu, who had expected that his talk with Trump would focus chiefly on Iran, Israeli media sources said.

At a news conference Septem­ber 18 just prior to their meeting, Netanyahu looked a bit mystified when Trump said: “We are going to discuss peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It will be a fantas­tic achievement. We are giving it absolute go. There is a good chance it could happen… I really think we have a chance.”

The details of what Trump pressed Netanyahu about are not known but Netanyahu tried to shift the attention later by praising Trump’s General Assembly address and focusing on Iran. He even had his wife, Sara, sit beside him in the General Assembly during Trump’s speech to underline his and his family’s close bond with the US president.

By contrast, Abbas was enthu­siastic about Trump’s renewed efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian track but, like Netanyahu, flat­tered the US president. Addressing Trump and using one of his stock phrases, Abbas said the efforts on the peace process “attest to the seriousness of Your Excellency, Mr President, to achieve the deal of the century in the Middle East during this year or in the coming months, God willing.”

Abbas noted that the Jewish and Islamic New Year starts around the same time this year, calling it an indication that the Palestin­ians and the Israelis “can co-exist peacefully together.”

Trump responded by saying that his team was working hard with the Israelis, the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia and other countries to achieve peace and underscored that “we have a very, very good chance” to achieve it, adding he would devote “everything within my heart and within my soul to get that deal made.”

Despite this outward display of optimism, Trump did throw in a cautionary note by saying: “There can be no promises, obviously.”

Indeed, Abbas’s address to the General Assembly showed how far apart the Palestinians and the Israelis are on a peace settlement. Abbas reiterated the Palestin­ian stance of a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines and called East Jerusalem an “occupied city” — positions strongly opposed by Netanyahu.

He added that Israeli policies “stir religious animosity and may lead to a violent religious conflict.”

More controversially, he warned against obstructing the issuance of the list of companies doing busi­ness with Israeli settlements in the West Bank and praised “our glori­ous martyrs and our courageous prisoners in Israeli jails.”

Netanyahu avoided talking about the Palestinians directly in his UN speech, which was devoted in large part to praising Israel’s accomplishments and opposing Iran. He did say Israel was com­mitted to achieving peace with all its Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians, but to underscore his opposition to any division of Jeru­salem, noted that: “Fifty years ago, we reunited our eternal capital, Jerusalem, achieving a miraculous victory against those who sought to destroy our state.”

Hence, despite Trump’s efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, the Israelis and Pal­estinians remain far apart on the issues of the 1967 borders, settle­ments in the West Bank and the ultimate disposition of Jerusalem — the core issues in the dispute.

How Trump and his team will reconcile these differences is any­one’s guess. Moreover, the recent rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, while desirous from a Palestinian nationalist point of view, may add complications to the peace process because both the United States and Israel regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Hence, while Trump used his New York trip to try to re-energise the peace process, it is not clear if anything was accomplished except that Abbas and Netanyahu showered praise on him as a way of trying to curry favour. One possible accomplishment was to reinforce the idea that the United States remains the indispensable broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even if peace is a distant dream.

Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.

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