The importance of President Trump’s political capital in making the ultimate deal

This appeared as the main print Op-Ed in the Jerusalem Post on May 9th 2017

With Jeremy Saltan 

Despite the time, effort, and attention of the Obama administration, Israelis never trusted President Obama. No matter the level of security assistance, Israelis just did not like him and felt that he ignored public opinion. When trying to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, trust, fondness and respecting Israeli public opinion matters. Given the current global and regional security dynamic, Israel likely would have to take significant risks to agree to change the status quo. Any future final-status agreement would require that Israel reduce the access the IDF currently maintains within the West Bank/Judea & Samaria.

Israeli public opinion polling shows Israelis agree to make adjustments to the status-quo in three potential scenarios. A) If Israelis believe their security will increase after a deal is made because the threat emanating from the Palestinians will decrease. B) If Israelis believe they could place themselves in a worse position by saying no to a potential deal. C) If Israelis believe they will be more secure because there is an opportunity to enjoy a security pact with a world superpower. This requires a peacemaker they like and trust.

Israelis do not believe that a deal with the Palestinians will make them safer, and public opinion is trending downward. The latest poll conducted by Professor Mina Tzemech for the Jerusalem Center on Public Affairs found that support for the Clinton Parameters is the lowest on record with only 29% supporting. That number drops to 18% if the deal does not include full Israeli security control of the West Bank/Judea & Samaria. It becomes even more complicated with the non-security-based elements of the Clinton Parameters as just 10% of Israelis support the transfer of the Temple Mount to Palestinian sovereignty.

While support for the Clinton parameters is at a historic low, desire for American involvement has increased strongly under President Trump. Israelis were asked if they could rely more on a settlement with the Palestinians under President Obama or under President Trump. 54.3% of Israelis responded they would rely more on President Trump’s involvement compared to 16.3% who responded Obama. A great majority of Israelis, 74%, answered that it is important the Americans are involved in any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

While Israelis clearly trust President Trump more than his predecessor his word is not enough. He will need to take action. His word only brings 31% to support a withdrawal from the West Bank/Judea & Samaria. However, if a final-status deal came with a guaranteed security pact with the United States, 51% of Israelis would agree to the Clinton Parameters. With his current approval ratings in Israel a narrow majority of Israelis believe that under President Trump a US security pact is strong enough to overcome their security fears of what a final-status agreement would require.

President Trump clearly has the political capital needed to make major progress towards the ultimate deal that he desires. He is in a better position than his predecessors. His unpredictable style also makes the 60% of Israelis who believe that the US-Israel special relationship is central to Israel’s security wonder what the President who is chasing the ultimate deal would do if Israel is the one who says no.

Starting from this strong position, President Trump’s trip to Israel is a key opportunity to increase his political capital so he can move closer to his goal. In addition to meeting politicians he needs to bring his case to the Israeli people with an approach that takes their public opinion into account. Prime Minister Netanyahu learned from his defeat in 1999 what it means to have a difficult relationship with a popular US president in the eyes of the Israeli public. President Trump’s challenge will be to show the Israeli people that they have placed their trust in someone who will not abandon them without cause and lives up to his commitments. In addition President Trump needs to show the Palestinians that he can move the ball meaningfully forward in a way that changes their day-to-day reality. Undoubtedly, this will be a difficult act to pull off.

Hope is a scarce commodity among the communities that have experienced failure for decades. Only 10.1% of Palestinians and 24.8% of Israelis expected President Trump to try his hand at restarting negotiations according to the latest joint polling. Given that few believed President Trump would attempt this so early, if at all, he suffers from none of the high expectations that followed President Obama into office. While it would gall many on the left that it could be President Trump who makes the ‘ultimate deal’, it would be a grave mistake and counterproductive for them to mock his efforts.

Despite the lowered expectations, no one should doubt President Trump’s commitment given he has chosen to visit both the Israelis and the Palestinians as part of his first international trip. When President Trump arrives in the region his mission will be to show that he has Israel’s back and that an eventual deal between Israeli and Palestinian people is possible. The data show he starts in a far stronger position than those who came before him. It is in the interest of everyone that we wish the President of the United States of America the best of luck.



Becoming a Celebrity for the Wrong Reasons

This article first appeared in Ha’artez

Two weeks ago, on October 29, I became a celebrity for seven hours. I fielded interview requests from around the world, major news networks posted my name and Twitter handle on their global broadcasts, and I received excited texts and calls from friends and family.

The fame was not due to my day job – where I am the head of a network of over 90 groups that work to build peace between Jews and Arabs – but thanks to a quirk of fate.

The story begins just before noon EST. My friend Jared is sitting in an airplane on the runway in Florida, waiting to fly back to Chicago, where we have plans for a fun evening before his return to the Gulf for work. While on the runway, Jared spots a plane on fire, films it and texts the video to me – as proof for why he’s going to be late.

Getting a video of a plane on fire is quite something, so I post it to Twitter with the hashtag #FLL (the code for Fort Lauderdale airport, where he was at).

Within 30 seconds, my Twitter feed explodes. Fox, CNN, CBS, Telemundo and AFP, to name a few, are getting in touch to ask permission to use the footage and to interview Jared.

Over the course of seven hours I fielded dozens of calls and tweets of people trying to get in touch with Jared, who had the bizarre experience of seeing his name on CNN breaking news while he was in the air on his way to Chicago.

Jared and I have a combined 15 years of professional experience working in Middle East peace work. Yet, neither of us has ever garnered such attention – not for us or our work – as when we happened to be able to show footage of a plane in flames.

This is normally where one could go on a rant about the media only reporting disaster news and that if it bleeds – or in this case, burns – it leads. Yet in the ad-driven, social media-shareable environment, it’s the consumers who are driving the content; not the journalists. Our obsession for news porn – fire, death and destruction – and our capacity to digest only bite-sized chunks of information push complex topics all the way to the back of the line.

Sure, there is some market for uplifting and positive stories. But we news consumers largely live on a media diet that describes the world as simple and dire.

Donors and stakeholders often ask me why my peace-building network doesn’t try to get more media attention for the positive news that emerges from our member organization’s initiatives. The problem, I explain, is there is no narrative to link the stories to; each is an independent good action that seemingly exists in a vacuum.

Instead, I focus on increasing the type of attention that our membership gets. We will never compete with the 30-second sound bite. A key aspect of what I do is getting journalists and opinion-shapers to recognize that the work of peace building is not nice, or cute, or just a human-interest story. This work is necessary. It’s as necessary as the physical security dynamics that dominate the headlines and it’s as necessary as the economic trade that fills up business sections.

Sadly, the work that Jared and I have dedicated our lives to will never make the headlines. Our work is packed with too much of a complex reality to fit into the Twitter wars that dominate the public sphere. Maybe we can get opinion shapers to take it seriously now and again. And perhaps we can find the key segment of the population that appreciates that complexity is not something to be terrified of, but embraced. Failing that we can always just film more disasters.