Trump Has ‘Narrow Window’ to Pursue Mideast Peace, Livni Says

  • Israel’s former negotiator says president has unique leverage
  • Palestinian conflict a ‘glass ceiling’ to Israel’s Arab ties

President Trump's Pitch for Middle East Peace

U.S. President Donald Trump’s early diplomatic moves have pried open a “narrow window” to broker the Middle East peace deal that eluded his predecessors, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator said.

Trump’s knack for keeping people off balance has given him unique leverage with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, according to Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister and chief peace negotiator. Other promising developments are the newfound interest of Sunni Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia in encouraging an agreement, and Europe’s focus on its own problems with refugees and terrorism, she said.

Tzipi Livni

Photographer: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty Images

“Frankly, this is a president that nobody wants to say no to,” the 58-year-old former Mossad agent said in an interview Tuesday in the sparsely furnished Tel Aviv office of the party she founded, Hatnuah. “We have different players and we have President Trump as the choreographer.”

Trump’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories in May on his first trip abroad as president -- as well as what he said there -- elated many Israelis, offering them a sharp contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama, who didn’t visit Israel until his second term. Especially welcome was his emphasis on brokering a regional peace agreement -- to include political and business ties with the wider Arab world -- and not just on negotiating with the Palestinians.

‘More Romantic’

“Every Israeli would like to have peace with the Arabs -- it’s more romantic that way,” Livni said, referring to the prospects of a region-wide deal. But she added, “the glass ceiling of our relations with the Arab world is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and therefore we need to solve it.”

For that to happen, Trump would have to help find solutions to issues of land, security and faith that a succession of U.S. presidents have failed to deliver. While his trip was full of speeches expressing a commitment to search for peace, publicly at least there was little of substance: no next step, no comment on competing claims to Jerusalem, no mention of a Palestinian state. American officials have said more substantive discussions took place behind closed doors.

Even as Israeli officials voice optimism about Trump’s ability to overcome decades-old obstacles -- Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told Israeli television last week that peace is “far closer” than ever before -- seasoned observers of the conflict say prospects for success remain dim.

“Would-be peacemakers always see opportunities where few or none exist,” said Aaron David Miller, a longtime White House adviser for Mideast peace talks and now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Settlement Shift

“It may be that the Gulf Arabs are prepared to do more to reach out to Israel, but unless the Israelis and Palestinians are prepared to settle for an interim agreement or alternatively make really big decisions on the core issues -- something they’ve never been willing to do -- I just don’t see what all the shouting is about,” he said in an email.

A high-ranking aide to Abbas, Mohammad Shtayyeh, told Bloomberg earlier this month that the Palestinians also sense a new dynamic in the peace process. He cited Trump’s personal engagement in the process as “a huge difference” from the Obama presidency -- though he’s still not optimistic about the chances of success.

Livni, who came close to being prime minister herself, led negotiating teams in 2009 and 2014 that ultimately returned empty handed. With Abbas now apparently willing to enter peace talks without the settlement freeze he’s demanded in the past, Livni sees an opportunity Netanyahu must seize.

“The timetable is very narrow,” she said. “Tomorrow, everything can change.”

Among the messages Trump conveyed to Netanyahu in May is that Arab states will show some flexibility if Israel accepts an Arab League peace initiative that holds out the opportunity for diplomatic relations across the Muslim world in exchange for an Israeli pullback from the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. However, the document also hints at a “right of return” to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, a demand rejected across the Israeli political spectrum.

‘It’s the Messenger’

“The Arab Peace Initiative is negotiable,” Livni claimed. “It’s not a take-it-or-leave-it situation.”

Livni abandoned the right-wing Likud Party she grew up in to become one of Israel’s foremost proponents of a two-state solution. In the 2009 election, her Kadima party won the most Knesset seats but she was unable to assemble the 61-member coalition needed for a parliamentary majority. Netanyahu regained the prime minister’s office he had lost in 1999. She also lost to Netanyahu in the 2015 campaign when her new party allied with Labor to form the Zionist Union bloc.

Given her experience leading peace talks, Livni was among the Israelis consulted by U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt earlier this year in his preparations for Trump’s diplomatic campaign. She declined to discuss their meetings.

The trail of disappointments hasn’t dampened her hopes that Israelis and Palestinians will ultimately live peacefully in neighboring states. While praising the peace efforts of Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, Livni said they had been unable to win the confidence of both Israelis and Palestinians. Trump may be different, she said.

“Sometimes it’s not about the message,” Livni said. “It’s the messenger.”

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