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Opinion Israeli-Palestinian peace deal: It’s much harder than Trump thinks

Daniel Douek teaches comparative politics and international relations at Concordia University and McGill University.

Speaking at the White House earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed that achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians "may not be as difficult as people have thought over the years."

It is tempting to believe that a new mediator with a fresh perspective, unwearied by previous foreign-policy experience, might succeed where previous U.S. presidents have failed. Mr. Trump has called achieving peace between Israelis and the Palestinians "the ultimate deal," as if reconciling two of the world's most implacable foes were merely a more challenging kind of real estate transaction. But Mr. Trump's optimism is born of ignorance, stemming from an utter lack of awareness about the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The likelihood of a revived peace process, let alone a successful one, is virtually nil.

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As with many other key foreign- and domestic-policy issues, the Trump administration has released a variety of contradictory statements and messages regarding key aspects of its policy toward the conflict. During his campaign, Mr. Trump, addressing the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), vowed to move the U.S embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a controversial plan that would imply recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. No previous U.S. president, no matter how pro-Israel, had dared to confer legitimacy in this way upon Israel's occupation of the land it conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The Trump administration has since backed away from this pledge, with U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declaring that the U.S. government would not carry it out. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, set off a mini firestorm in Israel by referring to the Palestinian territories as "Palestine," a name that embodies Palestinian aspirations to statehood, and is not used by the U.S. government; the U.S. State Department then walked back Tillerson's comments. Most importantly, Mr. Trump has expressed indifference to the two-state solution that would see the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The two-state solution has long been the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region, and is widely regarded as the only settlement that both sides could realistically accept. Nonetheless, in February, 2017, Mr. Trump, standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, declared: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like."

Some argue that the Trump administration's apparent lack of a unified plan actually reflects a clever bargaining strategy: By deliberately staking out multiple policy positions, it guarantees flexibility in forthcoming negotiations. But to argue this would be to give Mr. Trump entirely too much credit for a foreign-policy vision that he and his administration simply do not have.

In announcing peace between Israel and the Palestinians as a key priority for his administration, Mr. Trump gestured publicly to his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who himself has no experience in foreign policy or governance, saying "If you can't make peace in the Middle East, no one can." This does not bode well. In another nepotistic move, Mr. Trump appointed his bankruptcy lawyer, David Friedman, also a political neophyte, as his ambassador to Israel.

At face value, Mr. Trump's enthusiasm for reaching a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians is commendable; the Obama administration was so pessimistic about the chances for peace that it wasn't even made a priority. But Mr. Trump has articulated no road map for how to achieve this. In a speech on Tuesday at the Israel Museum, Mr. Trump proclaimed that the "Palestinians are ready to reach for peace," adding that Mr. Netanyahu also "wants peace." This at a time when the two sides are as far from a deal as they have ever been since 1993, when they first began negotiating.

During his hour-long visit to Bethlehem on Tuesday, Mr. Trump shook hands with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas but refused to mention the two-state solution, prompting Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi to note: "He's still on a learning curve, and peacemaking is not a business deal."

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Indeed, it is far more probable that Mr. Trump's efforts to reignite dialogue between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership will be a one-off, an ersatz display of statesmanship that fleetingly showcases Mr. Trump's supposed deal-making skills, but that is backed by no strategy or resolve to achieve anything tangible.

Taken against the backdrop of a roiling investigation back home into possible collusion between Mr. Trump's campaign and Russia, this opportunity for him to appear statesmanlike must be a welcome reprieve from America's domestic politics. But in reality, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be even harder to resolve than the investigations and allegations dogging Mr. Trump back home.

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