Trump admits Mideast peace tougher than he had thought

US vice president pressures Paraguay over decision to move its embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem.
Friday 07/09/2018
US President Donald Trump looks on as US Vice President Mike Pence speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, last June. (AFP)
US President Donald Trump looks on as US Vice President Mike Pence speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, last June. (AFP)

LONDON – President Donald Trump on Thursday admitted that bringing peace to the Middle East may be harder than he had thought, in comments to Jewish leaders marking the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

Trump, who said in May 2017 that forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians would perhaps be “not as difficult as people have thought over the years,” said Thursday he might have been wrong.

“All my life I’ve heard that’s the hardest deal to make, and I’m starting to believe that maybe it is,” he said in a conference call with Jewish faith leaders and the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, to mark the Jewish new year.

“But I will say that if it can be delivered, we will deliver it,” he said, insisting that his team of regional envoys — led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner — “have made progress, believe it or not.”

Trump stirred controversy in the region when he announced he was moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians claim as their own capital.

More than 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli gunfire during protests in the Gaza Strip the day of the inauguration of the new embassy on May 14, a ceremony attended by Kushner and his wife Ivanka, the president’s daughter.

The Trump administration has also cut funds to the United Nation’s Palestinian refugee agency and pulled out of the world body’s human rights council, accusing it of anti-Israel bias. The US government has also ended some $200 million in payments by USAID to the Palestinians.

Trump said during Thursday’s conference call that the aid would be suspended as long as the Palestinians — who boycotted his administration after the embassy announcement — did not come to the table.

“The United States was paying them tremendous amounts of money. And I’d say, you’ll get money, but we’re not paying you until we make a deal. If we don’t make a deal, we’re not paying. And that’s going to have a little impact,” he said.

Some analysts have warned however that the recent funding cuts could further inflame regional tensions.

US pressures Paraguay over Jerusalem embassy move

US Vice President Mike Pence urged Paraguay’s new president to stick to his predecessor’s decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Pence’s office said on Thursday after Asuncion announced plans to shift the diplomatic mission back to Tel Aviv.

Paraguay on Wednesday dealt a blow to Israeli’s quest for recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, which appeared to have gained some traction this year when the United States, followed by Guatemala and Paraguay, relocated embassies there.

Most countries do not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the entire city.

Pence, who played a main role in Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, spoke on Wednesday to Paraguayan President Mario Abdo, who was elected on August 15.

Pence “strongly encouraged” Abdo to follow through with Paraguay’s commitment to move the embassy to Jerusalem “as a sign of the historic relationship the country has maintained with both Israel and the United States,” Pence’s office said in a statement.

Former Paraguay President Horacio Cartes opened the new embassy in Jerusalem on May 21, just days after the United States and Guatemala did.

Hours after Paraguay announced its change on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by ordering the closure of Israel’s embassy in Paraguay.

The statement from Pence’s office did not say how Abdo responded to the vice president’s request.

It said only that Abdo “underscored Paraguay’s lasting partnership with Israel and the leaders agreed to work towards achieving a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Abdo on Wednesday defended his decision as part of an effort to support “broad, lasting and just peace” among Israelis and Palestinians.

Trump reversed decades of US Middle East policy. The status of Jerusalem – home to sites holy to the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions – is one of the thorniest obstacles to forging a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel claims as its capital all of the city, including the eastern sector that it annexed after the 1967 war in a move not recognized internationally.

But the Palestinians want East Jerusalem for the capital of a future state they hope to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Negotiations between the two sides broke down in 2014. 

The Paraguayan president on Thursday urged Israel to reconsider the closing of its embassy in Asuncion, calling it an “exaggerated” response to the South American country’s decision to move its embassy back to Tel Aviv.

“I regret Israel’s decision. The reaction of closing the embassy was a little exaggerated and we urge authorities to reconsider it,” Abdo Benitez said at a news conference in Itapua, 273 miles (440 kilometers) south of Asuncion.

He said Paraguay would “stick to international law and the United Nations’ resolution that still considers it a territory in conflict” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Turkey said it will open an embassy in Paraguay. Turkey’s ambassador to Paraguay has been operating out of Buenos Aires. Turkey has a consulate in Asuncion and another in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay.

By opening the embassy, Turkey is expressing support for Paraguay’s stance on Israel, Paraguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Castiglioni told reporters.

Castiglioni said he expected to meet his Turkish counterpart at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this month.

The Arab League has welcomed Paraguay’s decision to relocate its embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv.

Saeed Abu Ali, assistant to the league’s secretary-general for Palestinian affairs. told reporters Thursday the move serves as a model for other countries in the face of Israeli plans and US pressure. He also said it will also positively reflect on Arab-Paraguayan relations.

Abu Ali hailed Paraguay’s move as being on the “right track” and in accordance with international legitimacy resolutions.
The Palestinians will “immediately” open an embassy in Paraguay, foreign affairs minister Riyad al-Maliki said Wednesday, according to official news agency Wafa.

(Arab Weekly and news agencies)