- Nathan Thrallsenior analyst at the International Crisis Group, covering Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. His new book is titled The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine.
President Trump arrived in Bethlehem Tuesday during a two-day visit to Israel as part of his first trip abroad as president and vowed to do whatever necessary to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This comes as Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza launched a general strike Monday to protest Trump’s visit to Israel and Palestine and to show solidarity with Palestinian prisoners currently on hunger strike in Israeli jails. We get an update from Jerusalem, where Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group notes leaders on both sides are unsure what to expect from Trump, who made negative comments about Israel on the campaign trail. “That’s really the locus of the fear on the Israeli side with respect to Trump,” Thrall says. “It’s the notion that he could really try and exert pressure on Israel, threaten real consequences in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, if Israel were not to agree to, let’s say, the outlines of an American proposal for a settlement of the conflict or the outlines of an American proposal on which the two sides would negotiate and work out the details.” Thrall argues that if Trump uses his leverage, “we’re looking at a totally different Israeli-Palestinian peace process than we have seen in the past.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: ISIS has claimed responsibility for an attack on a concert arena in Manchester, England, Monday night that killed 22 people. Meanwhile, President Trump has arrived in Bethlehem as he continues his two-day visit to Israel as part of his first trip abroad as president. On Monday, Trump placed a note in the ancient stones of Jerusalem’s Western Wall and met Israeli leaders. He vowed to do whatever is necessary to broker peace between Israelis and the Palestinians, and called a peace accord the ultimate deal but offered few specifics.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I believe that a new level of partnership is possible and will happen, one that will bring greater safety to this region, greater security to the United States and greater prosperity to the world. This includes a renewed effort at peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I thank the prime minister for his commitment to pursuing the peace process. He’s working very hard at it. It’s not easy. I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all. But I have a feeling that we’re going to get there eventually. I hope.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During a meeting with Israeli leaders, Trump appeared to generate discomfort in the room when he mentioned his stop in Saudi Arabia and implied Israel is not located in the Middle East.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As you know, Rex, our secretary of state, has done an incredible job. We just got back from the Middle East. We just got back, Saudi Arabia. And we were treated incredibly well.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As Trump made the comment, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer can be seen burying his face in his hand. During his remarks, Trump said he also saw the possibility of a new alignment of Muslim nations and Israel against Iran.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: These leaders voice concerns we all share about ISIS, about Iran’s rising ambitions and rolling back its gains, and about the menace of extremism that has spread through too many parts of the Muslim world. I am encouraged that they pledge cooperation to confront terrorism and the hateful ideology that drives it so hard.
AMY GOODMAN: During his appearance alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, Trump also pushed back against reports he had disclosed highly classified information to the Russians during his Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name “Israel,” never mentioned it during that conversation. They were all saying I did. So you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word “Israel.”
AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times reported the information that Trump had passed along had come to the United States from Israel, but it did not allege that he mentioned the word “Israel” during the meeting. All this comes as Palestinians across the West Bank and Gaza launched a general strike Monday to protest Trump’s visit to Israel and Palestine and to show solidarity with Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli jails. This is Rifa Abu Jazar in Gaza.
RIFA ABU JAZAR: [translated] This protest comes as a response to the head of terrorism, Trump, and a response to whoever protects the head of terrorism, who describes the resistance of our people to defend their land and resisting against the murderers of their children as terrorism.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Jerusalem, where we’re joined by Nathan Thrall, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group covering Gaza, West Bank and Israel. His new book is titled The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine.
Nathan Thrall, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of President Trump’s trip to both Israel and the Occupied Territories? And talk about what he has said so far and the response.
NATHAN THRALL: Well, the trip so far—and it’s just ended—is not all that significant. I mean, the real significance is anticipating whether he’s going to attempt to start a peace process, whether he’s going to attempt to start a peace process with the regional states, with the Sunni-Arab states that he just visited in Riyadh. And it appears that he does intend to do so. And it appears that the parties, both the Israelis and the Palestinians, are keen not to upset him and will probably go along with at least starting a process. That hasn’t been trivial for previous administrations to do. Of course, if he starts a process, that’s by no means a guarantee that he’s actually going to conclude one successfully. And I think both sides are counting on the notion that he is easily distracted, and when he faces obstacles, as he inevitably will, he’ll just move on to the next thing.
So, I think that what we’re facing right now is great uncertainty on both sides with respect to Trump, which both sides both regard as a threat and an opportunity. There is a sense that there’s real ignorance, both on the part of the president and the team around him, and so much so that each side could potentially take advantage of that ignorance and change or shift U.S. policy in their direction. So, everybody is walking on eggshells right now and trying very much not to upset Trump, very uncertain whether he’s capable of retaliating against one side if he feels that they are an obstacle to his achieving what appears to be a real priority for him, and the real—real priority for both sides is to try and stay on Trump’s good side for now, without doing anything that’s too domestically difficult for each one.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Nathan Thrall, I wanted to ask you—clearly, Trump is not a conventional American leader as far as the foreign policy establishment is concerned. But you suggested in some of your writings that he’s treating the Israeli-Palestinian question as basically a real estate deal, a real estate transaction. Could you talk about that?
NATHAN THRALL: Sure. I mean, there’s a sense that Trump is not at all beholden to the views of the U.S. foreign policy establishment really on anything, but especially on this conflict. And he—there’s a sense that he does look at this as a real estate transaction. He has a bold subheading inside his book, The Art of the Deal, that’s called “Use Your Leverage.” And that’s really the locus of the fear on the Israeli side with respect to Trump. It’s the notion that he could really try and exert pressure on Israel, threaten real consequences in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, if Israel were not to agree to, let’s say, the outlines of an American proposal for a settlement of the conflict or the outlines of an American proposal on which the two sides would negotiate and work out the details. And Trump has—you know, during his campaign, he said some things that were frightening to supporters of Israel. He refused to blame one side for the impasse. And he even refused to back down when he was criticized for refusing to do so. And he does appear to really prioritize this conflict and see it as something that could create a legacy for him. And so, the question is: Does he intend to use his leverage? Is he capable of using his leverage? And if he is, then we’re looking at a totally different Israeli-Palestinian peace process than we’ve seen in the past.
AMY GOODMAN: Nathan Thrall, can you talk about who Ronald Lauder is and what his relationship with Donald Trump is around Israel and Palestine?
NATHAN THRALL: There’s been a lot of reporting about Ronald Lauder’s influence over Trump. They’ve known each other for a long time. Ronald Lauder is a very wealthy American businessman. And he had in the past been close to Netanyahu, although they are estranged now. He had been an envoy for Netanyahu in the ’90s in negotiating—when Netanyahu was prime minister then, in negotiating with Syria. By many accounts, he was not a very good one. And at this point, he is said to be very influential over Trump on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For a couple of years now, he’s been going around the region trying to promote his own peacemaking initiative. The people who have looked at this plan have ridiculed it as being ignorant of kind of the basics of the conflict. But that’s the administration that we’re dealing with. Trump has a personal relationship with this man. And he has a plan, and he has a team. And he appears to be telling—if the reporting is correct, he appears to be telling Trump that the Palestinians are ready and willing to make a deal and that Netanyahu is probably the obstacle. Again, that’s if the reporting is correct. I’m not inside the room to tell you for sure whether that’s the case. But if so, I think that’s very troubling to the Israelis. At the same time, there are real limits on how much of a role Lauder can play if Netanyahu refuses to deal with him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In a recent article you wrote for The Guardian, you said—I’m quoting—”The real explanation for the past decades of failed peace negotiations is not mistaken tactics or imperfect circumstances, but that no strategy can succeed if it is premised on Israel behaving irrationally.” What did you mean by that?
NATHAN THRALL: Well, what I meant by that is that, in the past, U.S. administrations have had a notion that both sides really want an agreement, and it just takes, you know, a bit of American facilitation to bring them together and to convince—in particular, to convince Israel that it’s in its own self-interest to reach peace, because if they don’t, then they’re going to become a pariah state and be forced by the entire world to give citizenship to all Palestinians. That’s this very stark choice that Israel is imminently going to face, and so, clearly, it’s in its rational interest to avoid doing that. The whole purpose of Zionism is to have a state for the Jewish people. They’ll lose that if they give citizenship to all Palestinians. And this is the conventional wisdom among American commentators and inside the U.S. government.
But the fact is that it’s not a matter of just convincing Israel of its rational self-interest, because it’s not actually in Israel’s rational self-interest to make an agreement and to give the Palestinians a state today. It may be in the future, when circumstances change. But today, they—any prime minister would be crazy to make peace with the Palestinians now, without being forced to. Even if they knew for a fact that in the future they were going to be forced to make a deal, they have every interest in waiting until that day comes, seeing if that day comes. Today they’re enjoying security quiet from the Palestinians in the West Bank. They’ve enjoyed years of this security quiet in the West Bank. And they have full security control. Their forces are on the border with Jordan. And they have very little to gain when they’re going to pull out tens of thousands of their own citizens, cause enormous domestic upheaval. And, you know, you have polls that show a majority of Israelis are opposed to giving up sovereignty over the Temple Mount, or Haram esh-Sharif. And that would be a necessary component of any agreement. So, basically, what you’re talking about is an Israeli prime minister who has to say to himself, “I’m ready to end my political career, create the worst domestic turmoil this country has ever seen, face potential assassination, and all for what? What am I avoiding by doing that? If I take the other path and I just don’t do the deal, what do I face? I face a very comfortable situation that I have today.”
AMY GOODMAN: Nathan Thrall, what about the Palestinian hunger strike, this major strike that’s going on in Israeli jails? Talk about what it’s about and its connection to Trump’s visit right now.
NATHAN THRALL: So, the hunger strike is primarily led by the Fatah faction, and—although other factions are participating in it. And it’s now in its 37th day. The demands of the hunger strikers is to improve the conditions of prisoners. There’s a list of 14 demands that they have. But the most important of them is to end administrative detention, to end solitary confinement, to improve health conditions in the prisons.
And the effect of this—I hope you can hear me with the helicopters overhead. The effect of this is really to create a problem for the Palestinian leadership, which is trying to promote a process with Trump, trying to be on Trump’s good side and is talking about something that’s totally disconnected from what most Palestinians care about today, which is the hunger strike that is overwhelmingly supported by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, a huge proportion of Palestinian families. Nearly all of them have relatives who are in prison. They’re all extremely supportive of this hunger strike, extremely concerned about the hunger strikers. These people are now receiving medical attention and being pulled out of the prisons into medical facilities. And at the same time, there’s this very incongruous image of their president sitting and meeting with Trump, who has not—hasn’t said too many things that ought to make Palestinians happy, and talking about engaging in yet another round of negotiations, vowing that there will not be an imposed solution, meaning, of course, that Israel—that the United States won’t put pressure on Israel. So, there is already extreme skepticism that any of this effort at restarting negotiations would succeed, but to have this take place while Palestinians are concerned about something so pressing as the lives of these prisoners really makes it quite tough for the Palestinian leadership.