Get Netanyahu and Abbas to shake hands, Mr. President
Op-ed: Instead of wasting your time with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, bring the Israeli and Palestinian leaders together and force them to talk and shake hands in front of the camera. If that happens, you’ll get the image you’ve been looking for, and maybe even jumpstart a process.
The march towards US President Donald Trump’s suite at the United Nations building in New York likely won’t be met by too much patience from the host. The line will be long, the assistants will send leaders in for a “tête-à-tête,” each leader with his own list of issues, and we’re all familiar with the president's restlessness.
Six meetings have already been scheduled from our neighborhood: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It’s equally interesting to see who Trump won’t be meeting with. In other words, who the president of the world’s greatest power has absolutely no interest in. For example, the leaders of North African states. Trump appears indifferent to the changes and tensions around them. The administration isn’t dealing with the bloody war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Yemen (and the cholera outbreak in Yemen, which is claiming hundreds of lives a day), with divided Iraq and with Kurdistan, which hasn’t decided yet whether to give in to the threats and cancel its independence referendum at the last minute.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley say Trump plans to pat the friends on the back and slap the enemies in the face. Going back to our neighborhood’s list of meetings, the president is about to waste his precious time. It’s no secret that almost all leaders from the neighborhood who have managed to secure a meeting in the presidential suite are going to cost the US hundreds of millions of dollars and maybe more. Each leader and his own interests. At the end of the day, their purpose is to ensure that the American aid won’t be cut.
On the UN stage, Trump is expected to blast the Iranians, but he won’t cancel the nuclear agreement. According to reports from last week, the Iranian issue—both concerning the nuclear agreement and concerning the Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon—will be at the focus of his meeting with Netanyahu, but in the closed room Trump will likely also try to solve the Palestinian mess. The package of economic benefits to the Palestinians, which the prime minister is supposed to bring along to the meeting, will possibly allow the American president—who is desperately seeking some kind of diplomatic achievement—to point to certain progress, even if it's symbolic, as part of the efforts to renew the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
That’s insufficient, Mr. President. You should have taken advantage of the fact that Netanyahu and Abbas are in your court at the same time (or manipulated their schedules) and slammed their heads against each other in your suite. Netanyahu says he has no objection to meeting Abbas? Take him at his word. Abbas makes similar overtures? Yallah, be my guest, come over and shake Netanyahu’s hand.
I assume you’ve learnt enough about the conflict. Even your advisors are already capable of reciting the main issues of the dispute in their sleep. It’s true there’s nothing new under the Middle Eastern sun and there won’t be anything new anytime soon. The conflict won’t shrink, Israel won’t divide Jerusalem, the refugees won’t return. But it could serve as an opportunity to create a momentum of thawing the frozen process. Everything is ready. All you have to do is turn the key and restart the process.
Don’t waste your time, Mr. President, with Jordan’s Abdullah, with Egypt's al-Sisi, with the Qatari emir and even with Erdogan. These meetings won’t lead to any progress in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Not one will complain if you force Netanyahu and Abbas to shake hands and at least make sounds of peace. With their vast experience, you can rest assured that they will know how to handle their opposition at home.
You should pressure them, bring them together, make them talk face-to-face, shake hands in front of the camera. If that happens, you’ll get the image of the diplomatic achievement you’ve been looking for, and maybe even jumpstart a process. It’s not too late to create this week’s drama.