By many standards, Donald Trump's big trip to Israel hasn't gone well. Despite being in one of the most sensitive, conflict-prone regions in the world, the president and his team have been plagued by gaffes, minor diplomatic dust-ups, major information leaks, and everything in between. When the president wrote about the great time he was having with his "friends" in the book of remembrance at Israel's holocaust museum, it probably didn't even crack the top five list of odd Israel-related blunders Trump has made just a few months into his presidency.
But so far, none of Trump's gaffes have done anything tangible to derail his dreams of scoring "the ultimate deal," his term for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Trump said that he "just got back from the Middle East" while in Israel, took a selfie with one of Israel's most loathsome politicians, and—on the much more serious side—defended his reported disclosure of Israeli intelligence to Russian leaders by seeming to acknowledge the disclosure.
But in the long term, none of that will likely matter. When it comes to Israel and Palestine, Trump seems to have an early advantage: No one knows what is in his head. And while it's much too early to claim that his Chauncey Gardiner–style statesmanship makes for effective foreign policy, it increasingly looks like both sides in this negotiation are desperate to earn his favor, meaning he can say and do whatever he wants, and leaders of Israel and Palestine will keep accommodating him.
"The basic dynamic that you have in place right now is that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders—including [Israel prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu—are made very nervous by Trump," said Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group and author of The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine. "When Trump makes a request, they're a little more frightened of saying no to him than they might have been with someone else."
Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency, Israel might not have agreed with her on everything, but could have taken considerable comfort in her sympathetic views toward Netanyahu's government. Basically, there wouldn't have been a major shift from Obama-era policies, and probably no serious push for a peace agreement. "She wouldn't want to be tainted with all of the scandal and controversy that attends this," Thrall told me. Trump, meanwhile, thinks Jared Kushner, his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law, can negotiate the hardest peace deal in history.
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Though Trump seems focused on Israel, it remains unclear what exactly he wants to do. Trump once supported moving the capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—but via an unnamed White House staffer, Trump revealed that he's not doing that for now. Trump signaled that he supported Israeli settlements in the West Bank by appointing a pro-settlements Israeli ambassador, but Trump has since asked for new settlements to stop for the time being.
Complicating things further, the coalition of center-right and far-right Israeli politicians that keeps Netanyahu's government afloat is in danger. Moshe Feiglin, a notable former Likud member on the far right, has become an avowed critic of the Netanyahu-Trump alliance, which he wrote in February would "fulfill the dreams of the most radical Left"—a sign that Likud's center/far-right coalition is becoming strained.
On the Palestinian side, according to Shira Rubin, the Jerusalem correspondent for Vocativ, there's cautious enthusiasm for Trump's ability to negotiate peace. Thrall told me the Palestinians see him as "almost the only American political figure that you could imagine in the White House who would actually potentially exercise real leverage."
Real leverage means using "direct threats," including cutting off financial aid to Israel—something no president of either party has had the stomach for. "Under Trump that's imaginable. The very fact that it's imaginable is radical," Thrall told me.
On Tuesday, Trump met with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas but again stayed away from any specifics. He didn't even indicate whether he agreed with the long-standing US position that a settlement would result in two states. Despite this, there was a general sense of goodwill, with Palestinian leaders saying nice things about him.
According to an op-ed by Times of Israel columnist Haviv Rettig Gur, any groveling in the short term by the Israelis or Palestinians is "not a sign of trust in Trump, but of their calculation that words are more important than substance to the new administration." Trump, according to Rettig Gur, is "best handled as a reality television star rather than a hard-nosed policy challenge."
In other words: Maybe Israelis and Palestinians know that there's little hope Trump can get a deal done, but don't want to be on the receiving end of any unnecessary Trump drama. When the most powerful person in the world is a TV personality who promises he can solve all your problems—problems that go back for millennia—who could blame you for just smiling and nodding, no matter what comes out of his mouth?
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