WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - During his 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump signaled his presidency would be a boon for Israel and tough on Palestinians. The U.S. Embassy would move to Jerusalem, he would name an ambassador who backs Israeli settlements on land Palestinians seek for a state and there would be no pressure for peace talks.
But as Trump prepares for his first White House meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his administration has not only toned down its pro-Israel bravado but also taken the first tentative steps toward a more cautious Middle East diplomacy, including consultations with Sunni Arab allies and U.S. lawmakers, according to people familiar with the matter.
While any strategy is still far from complete, there is growing consensus in the White House that tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could require gentle nudging of Israel together with assurances to the Arab world that Trump will be more even-handed than his campaign rhetoric suggested.
“This is a case where campaign promises run head-on into geopolitical reality and they have to be adjusted accordingly,” said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As a result, relocating the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a step world leaders including Jordan’s King Abdullah warned against and which would probably inflame the Muslim world - has been put on hold for now.
At the same time, the White House has adopted a more measured stance on Israeli settlement-building in occupied territory than candidate Trump appeared to advocate.
Even so, there is little doubt that when Netanyahu meets Trump on Wednesday, he will find a Republican president determined to show more warmth to Israel than his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, with whom he had an acrimonious relationship.
Social media exchanges have suggested a budding “bromance” between Netanyahu and Trump, who has pledged to be the “best friend” Israel has ever had in the White House.
As a result, Palestinians fear their leaders will be frozen out and their statehood aspirations pushed aside.
One White House aide cautioned that the administration is still in “listening mode” on the issue. Since taking office on Jan. 20, Trump has spoken by phone to Egyptian, Saudi and United Arab Emirates leaders and heard Abdullah’s concerns in person.
All of these countries have growing contacts with Israel, mostly behind the scenes and centered on a shared desire to counter Iran, a point that Netanyahu has often cited as among the grounds for his country’s eventual thaw with the Arab world.
Signaling an emerging view that U.S. Arab allies could be helpful on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, assigned to a senior role in Middle East diplomacy, has met Arab officials, including the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, the New York Times reported.
In his talks with Trump, Netanyahu is expected to try to keep the focus on forging a common front against Iran, Israel’s regional enemy and a target of Trump’s ire.
The Israeli-Palestinian dispute will nonetheless be on the agenda, especially after Israel’s parliament drew international condemnation for approving a law retroactively legalizing 4,000 settler homes built on privately owned Palestinian land.
Barring a curve ball from the sometimes unpredictable U.S. president, Trump is unlikely to use the talks to press Netanyahu for concessions toward the Palestinians in the way Obama did.
But neither can Trump afford to be seen to abandon the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, the bedrock of Washington’s Middle East policy since the 1993 interim peace accords and a principle embraced internationally.
A White House statement on Feb. 2 set forth a more nuanced position, backing away from a longstanding U.S. view of settlements as an “impediment” to peace but instead saying new settlements or the expansion of existing ones beyond current boundaries “may not be helpful” to that goal.
That shift transpired just hours after Trump met briefly with King Abdullah on the sidelines of an event in Washington.
Even so, the emerging shape of Trump policy remains more accommodating toward Israel than at any time since Republican George W. Bush occupied the White House.
“It seems we are headed for a new policy with this administration that is different from its predecessor in how it deals with the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian cause,” said Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.
There has been no contact between the Palestinian leadership and the Trump administration so far, Palestinian officials said.
Moderate, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was among the first world leaders Obama called on his first full day in office in 2009. A White House official insisted, however, that the administration intends to develop a relationship with the Palestinian Authority.
All the same, many Israeli officials do not read the White House’s settlements statement as a warning to Israel or a reining-in of Netanyahu. Not only does it conclude that settlements do not block peace prospects, it also says construction within established settlements is acceptable to Washington.
“Bibi will be happy,” said an Israeli diplomat, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He can put new settlements on hold and hold off the right wing by pointing to Trump. At the same time, he can build as much as he wants within existing settlements.”
In that regard, the lines drawn by the White House help Netanyahu fend off demands from the far right in his coalition for sweeping steps, like annexing portions of the West Bank.
Palestinians would be especially alarmed if Trump decided to proceed with moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, essentially recognizing the city as Israel’s capital despite international insistence that its status must be decided in negotiations.
The Palestinians want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, as the capital of their future state.
Trump and his aides have played down the prospects for a quick embassy move since he took office.
Some experts see a moderating influence in Trump’s national security team. It has members such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil chief executive with extensive contacts among Gulf Arab governments, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired Marine general.
They will have to deal with other, sometimes ideologically driven advisers with close personal ties to Trump. David Friedman, Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer and now nominee as ambassador to Israel, has raised funds for a West Bank settlement and voiced doubt about Palestinian statehood. Kushner’s family has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the same settlement.
Aides may be moving circumspectly also in hope of keeping the door open if Trump – who has touted his skills as a master dealmaker – decides to seek what he has called the “ultimate deal”: Israeli-Palestinian peace.
To pursue such an initiative, the United States needs to be seen as an even-handed mediator, while also overcoming the rigid disputes that have scuppered so many peace efforts over the years: settlements, borders, the status of Jerusalem, what to do with Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian political divisions.
The last, U.S.-brokered round of peace talks collapsed in 2014. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will be inclined to devote much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue at a time when it is distracted by other priorities. In the Middle East alone, the fight against Islamic State and countering Iran are higher on the agenda.
However, if Trump at some point does opt to wade in where so many of his predecessors have failed, for Netanyahu – who is looking for a reset of U.S.-Israeli relations – it might be a case of “be careful what you wish for”.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Howard Goller