Some of the less publicized bits from Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury blockbuster illustrate why the Trump team (still) believes it can make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
They also offer context for the president's recent moves on Jerusalem and his threats to cut off U.N. funds for Palestinian refugees. Most importantly, they reveal how little the president's black-and-white worldview matches the Mideast's 50 shades of gray.
The book claims the president's thinking was shaped by a hard right axis of former strategist Steve Bannon, Jewish billionaire and major GOP contributor Sheldon Adelson and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a nutshell, Wolff states: "The new Trump thinking about the Middle East became the following: There are basically four players – Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The first three can be united against the fourth. And [they] will pressure the Palestinians to make a deal. "
In other words, a deal that doesn't include Jerusalem, or deal with refugees or stop the growth of Jewish settlements on the West Bank – or offer the Palestinians real sovereignty over any contiguous territory. A deal that assumes the Palestinians have no option but to accept whatever they are offered.
What I am about to say has nothing to do with how one feels about Israel or the Palestinians, but only about the realities of the region: Only someone wholly unfamiliar with the Mideast could believe that such a deal can be closed.
Yet this is the direction in which the administration seems headed. Wolff describes a January 2017 dinner at which Bannon expounded: "Day One we're moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Netanyahu's all in. Sheldon (Adelson) is all in. We know where we are headed on this."
Of course, Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital – with no mention of the Arab sectors of the city – didn't come until December (the actually embassy move might take years). And the president followed up by tweeting "We have taken Jerusalem … off the table." But the Palestinians say "No Jerusalem, no talks."
But Bannon's thinking (which did inform Trump) assumes that the Palestinians are now politically irrelevant. At the January 2017 dinner, he bloviated: "Let Jordan take the West Bank, Let Egypt take Gaza. Let them deal with it. Or sink trying. The Saudis are on the brink, Egyptians are on the brink, all scared to death of Persia."
In other words, the Arab states would solve the Palestinian issue. But the idea that Jordan and Egypt will take on the thankless task of pacifying 2.7 million unhappy West Bank Palestinians and 2 million more in Gaza (while Israel keeps control of most West Bank land along with Gaza's borders) is a pipe dream. Both Arab countries have rejected the idea.
Yet Bannon's fantasy underlies Trump's apparent belief that the Palestinian question can be solved by pressure from Saudi and Egyptian rulers. Wolff writes that the effective Trump doctrine could be reduced "to three elements: powers we can work with, powers we cannot work with, and those without enough power whom we can functionally disregard or sacrifice [in this case, the Palestinians]."
When the president set out on his May trip to Saudi Arabia — along with son-in-law Jared Kushner whom he had tasked with devising the ultimate peace deal – Wolff says he could barely contain his enthusiasm: "He felt certain they had set out on the road to peace in the Middle East."
Trump "assured one of his after dinner callers, 'Jared's gotten the Arabs totally on our side. Done deal.'"
And, indeed, reports surfaced last month that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, close to Kushner, demanded that Palestinians accept a plan that would give them only very limited sovereignty over non-contiguous chunks of the West Bank.
Whether or not this story is true, and Palestinian leaders deny it, Israeli leaders are acting as if they believe it. Netanyahu's Likud Party just unanimously agreed that Israel should annex all settlements on the West Bank. This would divide Palestinian areas into an archipelago of disconnected bantustans, ruling out any future contiguous Palestinian state.
Netanyahu's coalition partner, the Jewish Home party, advocates outright annexation of at least 60 per cent of the West Bank.
And yet, the Israeli press reports that Kushner intends to move forward with his peace initiative. Trump's assumption – as per Wolff's book – is that Palestinians should accept whatever little they can now get.
The problem with this assumption is that the Palestinians do have options: if the two-state option dies they can press for equal rights in one state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. In that one state, Arabs will ultimately outnumber Israeli Jews. Preoccupied with their own problems, other Arab leaders won't force Palestinians to accept the Bantustan solution.