Background: U.S.-Middle East sticking points

22.05.2017

U.S.-Middle East sticking points

Donald Trump is heading to Israel and the Palestinian Territories on the second stop of his first foreign trip as U.S. president. Several thorny issues could quash his dreams of reaching the ultimate deal: peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Settlements

The political-right in Israel has grown increasingly disenchanted with Trump, who has failed to meet their expectations of support for unfettered settlement expansion in the West Bank. Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February to hold back on settlements, and Netanyahu's office had reportedly asked a planning committee to delay a meeting to approve new settlements until after Trump's visit – a sign that Israel is unsure of how the U.S. leader would react.

Iran  

Relations between Israel and Iran deteriorated in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with Israelis viewing Iran's nuclear programme as an existential threat amid calls by Iranian ayatollahs for Israel's destruction. Netanyahu began beating his battle drum over the Iran nuclear deal – signed in 2015 by Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama – during Trump's campaign for president. The Israeli leader recently thanked the U.S.  for using "forthright words" about Iran. Defence Secretary James Mattis said during a visit to Israel last month that the U.S. recognised a "need to confront the destabilising activities Iran." Trump has called the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers "the worst deal ever," and the U.S. is currently evaluating whether to remain in the accord. Last week, the Trump administration waived sanctions under the Iran deal, but slapped new sanctions on Tehran over its ballistic missile programme.

Western Wall

Israeli and U.S. officials planning Trump's visit to Jerusalem reportedly got into a spat over whether Netanyahu could join Trump in visiting the Western Wall, considered the holiest site in Judaism. The White House has since confirmed that Netanyahu will not accompany Trump to the site. One U.S. official reportedly told the Israelis that the Western Wall is not Israeli territory, poking a wound over the disputed sovereignty of Jerusalem. The U.S. State Department has said the report did not reflect the position of the U.S. or the president.

Intelligence

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman tried to downplay fallout from Trump's disclosure to Russia of intelligence information reportedly originating from Israel, saying the countries' security relationship remained strong.  In the wake of the incident, Israeli media cited security officials who called for Israel to re-evaluate its intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.S..

Embassy

Will Trump move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem? Though Netanyahu could not have asked for better timing for such an announcement – Trump's visit falls the same week as Jerusalem Day, commemorating the "reunification" of the city after the Six-Day War – the prospect seems less and less likely.  For Trump's part, it would be a lack of action that triggered the move: Every U.S. president since the passing of a law in 1995 to relocate the embassy has signed a waiver exempting its relocation due to national security interests. The waiver expires every six months. The presidential waiver signed by Obama shortly before leaving office is due to expire at the beginning of June.  However, Trump has backed off his promise, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told U.S. broadcaster NBC last week that "the president is being very careful to understand how such a decision would impact a peace process."  

Dispute with Palestinians

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was optimistic after meeting Trump in Washington earlier this month, despite a lack of specifics on what kind of solution Trump would like to see, two-state or other. A White House official stressed that Trump has not abandoned a two-state solution but is not interested in dictating the terms of a peace deal. Trump also "emphasised" the need to resolve a dispute between Israel and the Palestinians over government payments to security prisoners held in Israeli jails, whom Netanyahu condemns as "terrorists."    (dpa)