President Donald Trump began a two-day visit to Israel yesterday with what amounted to a blunt assessment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: If Israel really wants peace with its Arab neighbours, the cost will be resolving the generations-old standoff with the Palestinians.
For years, Mr Netanyahu has sought to make common cause with Sunni Arab nations to counter Shiite-led Iran, while managing the Palestinian dispute as a subordinate issue.
But as Mr Trump arrived in Jerusalem after meetings in Saudi Arabia, the president indicated that he and those Arab states see an agreement with the Palestinians as integral to that new regional alignment.
“On those issues, there is a strong consensus among the nations of the world — including many in the Muslim world,” Mr Trump said after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin.
“I was deeply encouraged by my conversations with Muslim world leaders in Saudi Arabia, including King Salman, who I spoke to at great length. King Salman feels very strongly and, I can tell you, would love to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians.”
“There is a growing realisation among your Arab neighbours that they have common cause with you in the threat posed by Iran, and it is indeed a threat, there’s no question about that,” Mr Trump said.
During his two days in Riyadh, Mr Trump received a warm welcome from Arab leaders, who focused on his desire to restrain Iran’s influence in the region, a commitment they found wanting in the Republican president’s Democratic predecessor, Mr Barack Obama.
“What’s happened with Iran has brought many of the parts of the Middle East towards Israel,” Mr Trump said in public remarks at a meeting with Mr Rivlin.
“Because I’ve seen such a different feeling towards Israel from countries that, as you know, were not feeling so well about Israel not so long ago. And it’s brought a lot of folks together.”
Lashing out at Iran, he said it must immediately stop its financial and military support for “terrorists and militias”, while adding that Tehran “must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon”.
During his trip, the American leader is expected to delve into the heart of the dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, in pursuit of what he has called “the ultimate deal”. Mr Trump, who arrived on what was believed to be the first open, direct flight to Israel from Saudi Arabia, said he had “found new reasons for hope” for peace during his meetings with Muslim leaders.
“We have, before us, a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region, and its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace,” Mr Trump said in brief remarks after his arrival. “But we can only get there (by) working together. There is no other way.”
His tour comes in the shadow of difficulties at home, where he is struggling to contain a scandal after firing Mr James Comey as Federal Bureau of Investigation director nearly two weeks ago. His trip ends on Saturday after visits to the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily.
Last night, Mr Trump defended himself against allegations that he divulged classified information in a recent meeting with Russian diplomats, saying alongside Mr Netanyahu that he never identified Israel in his Oval Office conversation. “So you have another story wrong,” he said.
Various reports, quoting anonymous officials, have said the American leader shared classified information with Russian diplomats about the threat posed by Islamic State, and several have said that information came from Israeli intelligence.
On his part, Mr Netanyahu said that American-Israeli intelligence cooperation is “terrific”, attempting to dismiss concerns that the incident violated the confidentiality of an agreement with Israel.
Earlier in the day, when receiving Mr Trump at the airport, Mr Netanyahu said Israel shared the US leader’s commitment to peace — but he also repeated his right-wing government’s political and security demands of the Palestinians, including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Mr Trump has vowed to do whatever is necessary to broker peace, but has given little indication of how he could revive negotiations that collapsed in 2014.
On Sunday, Israel authorised some economic concessions to the Palestinians that it said would improve civilian life in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and were intended to respond to Mr Trump’s request for “confidence-building steps”.
Washington welcomed the move, but the Palestinians said they had heard such promises before.
Today, Mr Trump will travel to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.