US President Donald Trump kicked off his first foreign trip since taking office in January by signing a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia on Saturday. His next stop was Israel. There, he vowed to do whatever is necessary to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, something he has called "the ultimate deal."
In Jerusalem, Trump said, standing beside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, that this was a “rare opportunity” to bring peace to the Middle East. Prime Minister Netanyahu described the visit as "truly historic." Trump then met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, where he appeared hopeful that the Israelis and Palestinians will be able to “forge peace and bring new hope to the region.”
But Trump has given little indication of how he will attempt to revive negotiations that collapsed in 2014. We talked with the outspoken American political scientist Norman Finkelstein, a lecturer and writer specialising in the Israel-Palestine conflict, about what the visit means.
Finkelstein argued that Trump will continue the policy of his predecessors, and made a stinging criticism of the Palestinian leadership as well. Thomas Lippman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, who specialises in US foreign policy in the Middle East, said Trump is delusional if he thinks he will succeed where more experienced politicians and diplomats have failed.
What is happening in Israel? Is there anything right now that Trump can be positive about and say there is a chance of peace?
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: This is all a charade. It’s a spectacle. It’s totally meaningless. It’s hard to grasp why anybody attaches any significance to it. At the general policy level, Trump is simply continuing US policy over a fairly long period, at least since the Reagan administration. There were some departures in conventional US policy during the era of Jimmy Carter. But since the 1980s, the US has been acting quite consistently. Trump just signed a 100 billion dollar deal with the Saudis.
Under Barack Obama, they also sold about 100 billion dollars in arms to the Saudis. Basically the same. What Barack Obama was in terms of policy towards the Palestinians, he was the worst president in modern American history. He blocked any UN security council resolutions that were critical of Israel until the last three weeks of his presidency, when he abstained from a resolution critical of Israel. Trump will act consistently with US policy under Obama.
The Palestinian leadership is not really a leadership, they’re just collaborators with the Israelis. They entertain these delusions that they’re important, they’re key regional players. This is all complete nonsense. Trump has his advisers, his advisers tell him that Mahmoud Abbas is a megalomaniac. He’s a tinpot dictator. Just tell him that he is important and he gets very excited. Abbas surrounds himself with all these flunkies who tell him how important he is. Then they go around saying that Trump is going to make peace. They say it basically because if Trump isn’t going to make peace, then they’re just collaborators.
Israel is building its first settlement in years. What impact do you think that will have on peace? Do you think it’s possible?
NF: It’s not going to have any impact because the issue is not whether you build a new settlement or expand old settlements. You’re still adding to the population of Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. So for the past 50 years, Israel has been expanding old settlements. Now they’re making a token new settlement. What’s the difference? There are 600,000 illegal Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories. If you built a new settlement or expand old settlements, it hardly makes a difference. It doesn't make any difference.
Trump says he is hopeful for a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Is there a genuine reason for such optimism, or do we think he is perhaps being diplomatic?
THOMAS LIPPMAN: I’m sorry to say, there is no reason whatsoever to think President Trump – or anyone working for or with him – can achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It’s less likely than it was [during the terms of] all his predecessors [who also] failed.
So what do we think the US really wants from Israel? Why is he doing this?
TL: Well remember who you’re dealing with here. You’re dealing with President Donald Trump. One of the most erratic leaders in the world. To ask why is he doing it is to wander into a thicket from which you may not emerge. He seems to believe that with energy and good will and the negotiating skills of his son-in-law, he can actually pull off some kind of diplomatic miracle, despite the fact that conditions on the ground are simply not receptive to any such effort.
Do you think his efforts are completely futile?
TL: First of all, I’m not aware that there have been any efforts. Presumably, he is doing that now while he’s in Jerusalem, and tomorrow in Ramallah, talking to Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinians. But in terms of actually moving the ball, as far as I know, nothing has actually happened.
Why do we think Trump is being so hostile to Iran, at a time when the country has just got a re-elected president who has agreed to curb its nuclear program and is widely believed to be moderate?
TL: No, I think Trump is fully justified in his attitude with the Iranians. That’s because of their behaviour on everything other than the nuclear agreement. The nuclear agreement was self-contained. It did not apply to any of Iran’s other foreign policies.
The unremitting hostility to Israel, Iranian meddling in Lebanon, in Bahrain, in Yemen – however extensive it may be, you can argue about that. The fact is Trump is conditioned now by [Defence Secretary] General [James] Mattis, and by his friends the Saudis, to see Iran in the worst light. Yes it’s true the [Hassan] Rouhani guy got re-elected, and he may represent the aspirations of the young people of Iran for a better relationship with the outside world. But, in fact, the president of Iran does not run the country. The decisions Iran makes that the United States objects to are made by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps.