US president Donald Trump has cast the elusive pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians as the “ultimate deal” as he continues his tour of the Middle East.
Mr Trump has handed son-in-law Jared Kushner and long-time business lawyer Jason Greenblatt the assignment of charting the course toward a peace process. The White House-driven effort is a sharp shift from the practice of previous US administrations that typically gave secretaries of state those responsibilities.
Mr Kushner and Mr Greenblatt will accompany Mr Trump on his two-day visit to Israel, which will include separate meetings with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Mr Trump also plans to visit the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, an important Jewish holy site.
On the eve of Mr Trump’s visit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet approved several confidence-building measures, including construction permits for Palestinians near their cities in parts of the West Bank that had previously been off limits, a senior official said.
Under interim agreements 60% of the West Bank, known as Area C, site of Israel’s settlements, is under Israeli control and Palestinian development there has mostly been forbidden by Israel. The official said the package also includes economic concessions and opening the border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan.
White House aides have played down expectations for significant progress on the peace process during Mr Trump’s stop, casting it as more symbolic than substantive. Yet Mr Trump may still need to engage in some delicate diplomacy following revelations that he disclosed highly classified intelligence Israel obtained about the Islamic State group with top Russian officials, without Israel’s permission.
Israel also has expressed concern about the 110 billion US dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia that Mr Trump announced on Saturday in Riyadh. Yuval Steinitz, a senior Cabinet minister and Netanyahu confidant, called Saudi Arabia “a hostile country” and said the deal was “definitely something that should trouble us”. Mr Trump’s first overseas trip as president comes as the dynamics between the United States and the region’s players are moving in unexpected directions.
While Israeli officials cheered Mr Trump’s election, some are now wary of the tougher line he has taken on settlements: urging restraint but not calling for a full halt to construction. Mr Trump has retreated from a campaign pledge to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bending to the same diplomatic and security concerns as other presidents who have made similar promises.
A senior official who was part of the Palestinian delegation said Mr Trump is planning to try to relaunch peace talks, with a goal of reaching an agreement within a year. The Trump administration rejected a request from the Palestinians to push for an Israeli settlement freeze, but promised to sort out the issue during peace negotiations, according to the official.
Jibril Rajoub, a senior Palestinian official close to Abbas, said Mr Trump was a “serious president” who “seeks to have a real deal, not just managing the conflict”. David Friedman, the new US ambassador to Israel, told the newspaper Israel Hayom that Mr Trump’s goal at the start is simply “to begin a discussion that would hopefully lead to peace”.
Mr Trump’s trip began in Saudi Arabia and takes him, after Israel, to the Vatican for an audience with Pope Francis, to Brussels for a Nato summit and to Sicily for a meeting of leaders of the Group of Seven major industrial nations.