- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2017

With the horrific terrorist attack in Manchester underscoring his urgency, President Trump pressed Palestinians and Israelis on Tuesday to restart peace talks, saying their cooperation will bolster an alliance with Arab states to defeat Islamist terrorist networks striking throughout the West.

After meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, Mr. Trump concluded his two-day visit to Israel by issuing the same call that other U.S. presidents have failed to achieve — for Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land to put aside their “pain and disagreements of the past.”

“Palestinians are ready to reach for peace,” Mr. Trump said in a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, gesturing to Israel’s prime minister. “Benjamin Netanyahu wants peace.”

Mr. Trump received an unwanted and fresh example of the reason for his Middle East trip, a terrorist attack Monday night in Manchester, England, in which a suspected suicide bomber killed at least 22 people and wounded more than 50 at an Ariana Grande concert. The president, who called such extremists “evil losers in life,” said all nations must unite in a battle to “obliterate this evil ideology.”

“We must drive out the terrorists and the extremists from our midst,” Mr. Trump said. “This trip is focused on that goal, bringing nations together around the goal of defeating the terrorism that threatens the world and crushing the hateful ideology that drives it so hard and seems to be driving it so fast.”

In two days of shuttle diplomacy on his first foreign trip, Mr. Trump didn’t offer a “road map” for Middle East peace or lecture Israelis about freezing West Bank settlements, as did President Obama before the most recent talks fell apart in 2014. Aides said his strategy was designed to avoid mention of specific issues that could lead to immediate roadblocks, and to focus instead only on restarting negotiations.

A senior official said the president’s goal is to find “a peaceful way to create a new direction for the Middle East.”

“I think this trip was a big success because it was unexpected,” the official told reporters aboard Air Force One as Mr. Trump departed the Middle East for a meeting with Pope Francis Wednesday in Rome. “What it’s basically done is create a new and strong relationship between America and the Muslim World.”

Although there is no timetable for peace talks, the official said Mr. Trump’s visit has fostered a better atmosphere for restarting negotiations.

“You can’t just walk in on Day One and sign a deal that no one has gotten done in 35 years,” the official said. “The one thing that it probably will be is quiet and discreet.”

“We look at it and we say our job is to try to make the lives of the American people better. If we’re creating more peace, that makes the lives of American people better,” the official added.

Michael Oren, an adviser to Mr. Netanyahu and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said Mr. Trump is taking the right approach by avoiding discussion for now of settlements, borders or two states.

“What I believe President Trump did was to remove many of these hurdles,” Mr. Oren told reporters. “How did he do it? The word ‘settlements,’ I didn’t hear once during his visit. He did not talk about a two-state solution. What he did talk about was peace talks. If you get bogged down either on the settlement issue, on the border issue, on a two-state issue, you’re never going to get anywhere. If there’s a chance for reactivating the peace negotiations, this is it — by the very vagueness.”

Mr. Oren said that although Israelis welcomed Mr. Trump’s rhetoric against Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, they are skeptical of the president’s claim that Mr. Abbas wants an agreement.

“The public generally cannot point to any specific evidence that would support the contention that Abbas is ready for peace,” he said.

Mr. Abbas reiterated to Mr. Trump “our commitment to cooperate with you in order to make peace and forge a historic peace deal” and to become partners with the U.S. against terrorism.

“Our Palestinian people’s attainment of their freedom and independence is key to peace and stability in the world,” said the 82-year-old Mr. Abbas, whose popularity among Palestinians has been declining. “We are keen to keep the door open to dialogue with our Israeli neighbors from all walks of life.”

But the Palestinian leader also raised many of the familiar grievances and demands for a peace deal with Israel, including a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and an end to what the Palestinians view as the illegal “occupation” of the West Bank.

“The conflict is not between religions,” Mr. Abbas said. “Our fundamental problem is with the occupation and settlements and failure of Israel to recognize the state of Palestine in the same way we recognize, which undermines the realization of a two-state solution. The problem is not between us and Judaism. It is between us and occupation.”

He also called on the Israeli government to meet the demands of Palestinian hunger strikers.

After his meeting with Mr. Abbas, Mr. Trump did criticize the Palestinian Authority’s policy of rewarding terrorists.

“Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded and even rewarded,” Mr. Trump said in reference to the Palestinians’ practice of paying cash to terrorists or their families for attacks against Israelis.

Mr. Abbas condemned the Manchester attack as “horrible,” and Mr. Netanyahu later said he was encouraged to hear the Palestinian leader’s comments, hoping they represent real change.

But Mr. Netanyahu noted that if the suicide bomber in Manchester had been a Palestinian and the victims Israelis, the reaction of Palestinian leaders would have been different.

“The suicide bomber’s family would have revived a stipend from the Palestinian authority. That’s Palestinian law. That law has to be changed,” said Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Trump also reaffirmed the U.S. alliance with Israel, a relationship strained during the Obama administration.

“I make this promise to you. My administration will always stand with Israel,” Mr. Trump said at the Israel Museum.

The president has used his first trip aboard to prod countries across the Middle East and Europe to step up the fight against Islamic terrorism. He began the journey in Saudi Arabia, telling a gathering of 50 leaders from Muslim countries that they must root out extremism within their countries.

It was a point he emphasized during his meeting with Mr. Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

“It’s so interesting that our meeting took place on this very horrible morning of death to innocent young people,” Mr. Trump said. “We must be resolute in condemning such acts in a single unified voice, peace is a choice we must make each day and the United States is here to help make that dream possible for young Jewish, Christians and Muslim children all across the region.”

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