Trump heads to Israel, Palestine amid doubts over shifting goals

US President Donald Trump and Arab leaders at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2017.
US President Donald Trump and Arab leaders at the Arab-Islamic-American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM • United States President Donald Trump heads for Israel and the Palestinian territories today as part of his first trip abroad since taking office, hoping to renew peace efforts.

The unpredictable US President arrives having already upturned expectations when it comes to the decades-old Middle East conflict, giving Palestinians more hope than they may have anticipated and disappointing right-wing Israelis who heralded his election.

He has spoken of reaching "the toughest deal to make", one that has long bedevilled US presidents, vowing "we will get it done". But any leader would face an enormous challenge in seeking to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together for meaningful talks, and Mr Trump's inexperience and domestic political struggles will only add to it.

Mr Trump arrives in Israel this afternoon following his visit to Saudi Arabia and will hold talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the day in Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu said yesterday that he would discuss peace efforts with Mr Trump when he visits, while the Israeli Cabinet considered economic gestures towards the Palestinians.

But Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz expressed concern over a major arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia announced last Saturday. "This is a matter that really should trouble us," said Mr Steinitz.

Mr Trump is expected to become the first sitting US president to visit the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray and located in east Jerusalem, which Israel occupied in 1967 and later annexed.

Tomorrow, he visits Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

After a visit later tomorrow to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, he is due to give a speech at the Israel Museum.

Mr Trump has sent mixed signals about how he will approach the conflict. He cast uncertainty over years of international efforts to foster a two-state solution when he met Mr Netanyahu at the White House in February. At that meeting, he said he would support a single state if it led to peace, delighting Israeli right-wingers who want to see their country annex most of the West Bank.

At the same time, he urged Israel to hold back on settlement building in the West Bank, a longstanding concern of Palestinians and much of the world. He also held face-to-face talks in Washington with Mr Abbas earlier this month, confidently predicting that a peace agreement was within grasp.

During his campaign, Mr Trump advocated breaking with decades of precedent and moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a prospect deeply alarming to Palestinians. He has since backed away, saying the move was still being looked at.

Mr Trump's seeming openness to at least some of Mr Abbas' concerns has given Palestinians more reason for hope than many may have expected, but still reason to remain wary, some analysts say.

Even if Mr Trump can see beyond his domestic political troubles and focus on moving peace efforts forward, he will have to overcome the constraints of both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas. The 82-year-old Palestinian leader has grown unpopular, while Mr Netanyahu will have difficulty making significant concessions that his right-wing base will accept, many analysts say.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'Trump heads to Israel, Palestine amid doubts over shifting goals'. Print Edition | Subscribe