Trump shows off latest Israel strategy in new interview: continuity

US President-elect Donald Trump speaks in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on December 9, 2016 [AFP/File / DON EMMERT]
U.S. President Donald Trump is sounding more and more like past presidents when it comes to Israel [AFP/File / DON EMMERT]
U.S. President Donald Trump said today that further settlement construction will not aid the peace process and implored Israel to “act reasonably.”

Overall, the interview with newspaper Israel Hayom, appears to have Trump doubling-down on a Feb. 2 statement, credited to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, that said “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”

Israel Hayom, the paper conducting the interview with Trump, is affiliated with Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, with whom Trump had dinner Thursday night.

The administration’s stance will doubtlessly be a relief to those who feared that a dramatic change in U.S. policy could inspire blowback in the region, as some of Israel’s avowed enemies have promised. Indeed, Spicer’s statement began by stating that “The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years,” and more and more, Trump’s White House seems to be stressing greater continuity with Washington policy rather than a significant break.

“We are currently in a process that has been going on for a long time,” Trump said today. “Decades. A lot of people think that it can’t be done. And a lot of smart people around me claim that you can’t reach an agreement. I don’t agree. I think we can reach an agreement and that we need to reach an agreement.”

What Trump is proposing to reach that agreement, however, doesn’t seem noticeably distinct from what the Obama administration offered, including dissuading Israel from further settlement construction.

“There is limited remaining territory,” Trump said. “Every time you take land for a settlement, less territory remains. I’m not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace.”

The president also stressed that concessions must come from Palestinians as well as Israelis, saying “No deal is a good deal if it isn’t good for all sides.”

When it comes to moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump also backed away from his earlier stridency, saying that he is still “learning the issue.” 

“It’s not an easy decision,” Trump said. “It’s been discussed for so many years. No one wants to make this decision, and I’m thinking about it seriously.” 

On the campaign trail, of course, Trump certainly sounded like he’d made his decision, saying things like he was “100 percent” for moving the embassy. That said, promising to move the embassy and then not following through would just be one more way that Trump is establishing continuity with his predecessors.

Still, Trump hasn’t lost one of his definitive rhetorical features: unbridled yet vague optimism. 

“Maybe there will even be a possibility of a bigger peace than just Israel and the Palestinians. I want both sides to act reasonably, and we have a good chance at that,” Trump said. 

It’s not clear what he meant by “a bigger peace than just Israel and the Palestinians.” Still, it’s certainly impressive that Trump considers Middle East peace—an accomplishment no U.S. president, no matter how lauded, has ever met—as a mere appetizer to greater foreign policy goals.

In order to reach that goal, however, the White House will require new ideas, not just “continuity.”

02/10/2017 9:19 AM by David Kinzer

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