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World

Trump Pushes for Mideast Peace, but Avoids Thorny Details

A longtime businessman, Trump has cast Middle East peace as the "ultimate deal"

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before delivering a speech at the Israel Museum, Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem, photo: AP/Evan Vucci
4 months ago

JERUSALEM – President Donald Trump on Tuesday pushed for elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians, calling on both sides to put aside the “pain and disagreements of the past.”

Trump met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his quick stop in the region. Speaking at the Israel Museum, he declared both sides ready to move forward, though there were no tangible signs of the dormant peace process being revived.

“Palestinians are ready to reach for peace,” Trump said. Turning to the prime minister, who joined him for the speech, Trump said, “Benjamin Netanyahu wants peace.”

President Donald Trump listens as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas makes a statement, Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem. Photo: AP/Evan Vucci

and has tasked his son-in-law Jared Kushner and former real estate lawyer Jason Greenblatt with charting a course forward. Still, White House officials had downplayed the prospects for a breakthrough on this trip, saying it was important to manage their ambitions as they wade into terrain that has tripped up more experienced diplomats.

The president notably avoided all of the thorny issues that have stymied peace efforts for decades. He did not weigh in Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem or even whether the U.S. would continue to insist on a two-state solution giving the Palestinians sovereign territory.

Aides said the approach was purposeful, and the normally free-wheeling Trump was well-aware of the risks of veering off script on issue where every word is intensely scrutinized.

From Israel, Trump headed to Italy for an audience Wednesday with Pope Francis. He’ll close his ambitious first foreign trip at a pair of summits in Brussels and Sicily, where his reception from European leaders may be less effusive than his welcome in Israel and Saudi Arabia, his opening stop on the trip.

Trump and Netanyahu in particular lavished praise on each other during their multiple meetings. The prime minister, who had a frosty relationship with Trump’s predecessor, leapt to his feet when the president declared Tuesday that his administration “will always stand with Israel.”

Yet some Israeli officials are less certain of Trump. He’s taken a tougher than expected line on settlements, saying he doesn’t believe they help the peace process, though he’s stopped short of calling for a full construction freeze. He’s also backed away from his campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bending to the same security risks as other presidents who have made that promise.

At the same time, Abbas and the Palestinians have been pleasantly surprised by their dealings with Trump. On Tuesday morning, Trump met with Abbas in Bethlehem, traveling across the barrier surrounding much of the biblical city, which serves as a visual reminder of the complexities of the conflict in the region.

Abbas said he was keen to “keep the door open to dialogue with our Israeli neighbors.” He reiterated the Palestinians’ demands, including establishing a capital in East Jerusalem, territory Israel claims as well, insisting that “our problem is not with the Jewish religion, it’s with the occupation and settlements, and with Israel not recognizing the state of Palestine.”

After his meeting with Abbas, Trump returned to Jerusalem for a solemn tribute to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. On a visit to the Yad Vashem memorial, the president and first lady Melania Trump laid a wreath on a stone slab under which ashes from some of those killed in concentration camps are buried. They were joined by Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as well as daughter Ivanka Trump and Kushner.

The White House said Trump was being updated on the attacks in Manchester, England, by his national security team. More than 20 people were killed by an apparent suicide bomber. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

“So many young, beautiful innocent people living and enjoying their lives, murdered by evil losers in life,” Trump said, echoing the theme he presented during his meetings with Arab leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The White House said it was Trump’s idea to use the term “evil losers.”

Trump declared that he would not call the attackers “monsters,” a term he believes they would prefer, instead choosing “losers,” a longtime favorite Trump insult and one he has directed at comedian Rosie O’Donnell, Cher and others.

Trump’s visit to Jerusalem has been laden with religious symbolism. He toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which by Christian tradition is where Jesus was crucified and the location of his tomb. Wearing a black skullcap, he became the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, the most holy site at which Jews can pray.

Trump was also joined at the wall by his family, who separated by gender to pray. The president and Kushner visited one side, while the first daughter and first lady visited a portion of the site reserved for women. Trump approached alone and placed his hand on the stone.

President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, Monday, May 22, 2017, in Jerusalem. Photo: AP/Evan Vucci

The visit raised questions about whether the U.S. would indicate the site is Israeli territory. The U.S. has never recognized Israeli sovereignty over parts of the Old City seized in the 1967 war.

The White House struggled to answer the question. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared the site part of Israel, while U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday dodged the question. Trump himself never commented.

JONATHAN LEMIRE
JULIE PACE

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