Skip to main content

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, on March 5, 2018.KEVIN LAMARQUE

Meetings between U.S. and Israeli leaders were dominated for decades by a single topic: the push for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli leaders came to Washington, often staying in Blair House, the presidential guest house directly across the street from the White House, and were told again and again that they had to bring an end to Israel's long occupation of Palestinian land. Palestinian leaders, in turn, were told that they had to help guarantee the long-term security of the Jewish state.

Benjamin Netanyahu, during his first term as prime minister, spent a long night in Blair House trying to find common ground with then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, while Bill Clinton and his staff tried to nudge the two sides toward agreement. A freshly elected newcomer on the international stage, Mr. Netanyahu left those 1996 meetings with a dour look on his face, plainly unhappy with how hard Mr. Clinton had pushed him to compromise with Mr. Arafat.

More than two decades later, Mr. Netanyahu is again a resident in Blair House this week. And while the Israeli military still rules over 3.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank – and along with Egypt has been sustaining a decade-long blockade of 1.9 million more living in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip – the American pressure to change that situation is almost completely gone.

Mr. Netanyahu met Monday with Donald Trump, with whom he has established an easy rapport. Unlike Mr. Netanyahu's tense meetings with Barack Obama, the Israeli leader and Mr. Trump looked relaxed in each other's company.

They spent a brief press appearance talking about the strength of the Israel-U.S. relationship, and the threat that both men see posed by Iran. The issue of the Palestinians was tertiary, at best.

That's a massive strategic gain for Israel, one that's central to Mr. Netanyahu's legacy. "[Mr. Netanyahu] doesn't want to make peace, because he's convinced the status quo works for Israel," said Anshel Pfeffer, who has written a soon-to-be published biography of the Israeli Prime Minister.

Israel's occupation of the West Bank is now more than 50 years old, Mr. Pfeffer noted. But violence has fallen off dramatically in recent years – as has international pressure to resolve the conflict. "Everyone says [the situation] is not sustainable. And then 10 years later we're still there."

Mr. Netanyahu profusely thanked Mr. Trump on Monday for his controversial decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, calling it "bold" and "historic." He invited Mr. Trump to attend the embassy's official opening on May 14.

The date was chosen to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the creation of Israel, a day that many Palestinians – displaced from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war – refer to as "the Nakba," or "the catastrophe."

The Palestinian Authority, which claims East Jerusalem as its capital, sees the American embassy move as so offensive that it disqualifies the Trump administration from playing the traditional U.S. role of chief mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Trump is simply not even interested in ending the occupation, and [the Trump administration] has expressed that in half a dozen ways and then some," said Diana Buttu, a one-time adviser to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. She said her former boss felt so "betrayed" by the U.S. embassy move that she couldn't envision Mr. Abbas taking part in any negotiations led by Mr. Trump or Mr. Kushner. "He's definitely not going to sign any agreement with them."

Mr. Trump told White House reporters on Monday that he still hoped to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, claiming he'd advanced that cause by taking the issue of Jerusalem – a major stumbling block in all previous negotiations – "off the table." He said it was now up to the Palestinian leadership to come back to the bargaining table. "If they don't, you don't have peace," Mr. Trump said.

The U.S. President came to office a year ago saying he would broker the "ultimate deal" between Israel and the Palestinians. He put his son-in-law Jared Kushner in charge of the file.

But a year later, the Trump administration has yet to unveil its Middle East peace plan, and no one knows what Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner have in mind. Mr. Kushner's credibility on the file was diminished recently when his White House security clearance – including his access to daily intelligence briefings – was downgraded amid a continuing FBI background check into Mr. Kushner's foreign business ties.

Ghassan Khatib, a veteran peace negotiator who now heads the Palestinian Authority's Government Media Centre, said Palestinians didn't see any possibility for peace while the "very dangerous combination" of Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu were in office.

Mr. Khatib said that while Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu spoke of wanting to combat Iran's spreading influence in the Middle East, the embassy move and the lack of progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace were having the opposite effect. "It gives encouragement to the extremists in Palestinian society, and at the regional level. Forces like Iran are now saying 'Look, I told you nothing good can come from the American side,'" he said.

Some Israelis, however, feel Mr. Trump is unpredictable enough to suddenly flip from being Mr. Netanyahu's biggest friend to demanding that Israel make concessions such as removing some Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank to the Palestinians as repayment for the U.S. embassy move.

"I believe we are close to the time when Trump will ask Netanyahu and Israel to pay him back for his support," said Amiram Levin, a decorated former general in the Israeli military.

Then Mr. Levin shrugged. "Nobody in Israel knows what [Mr. Trump] will do. I hope he knows."

The United States said on Friday it will open its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem in May, a move from Tel Aviv that reverses decades of U.S. policy and is bound to trouble U.S. allies who have already objected.


Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe