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Trump pursues ‘ultimate deal’ in Israel

Julie Pace and Josef Federman
Associated Press

Jerusalem — President Donald Trump has cast the elusive pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians as the “ultimate deal.” But he will step foot in Israel having offered few indications of how he plans to achieve what so many of his predecessors could not.

Trump has handed son-in-law Jared Kushner and longtime business lawyer Jason Greenblatt the assignment of charting the course toward a peace process. The White House-driven effort is a sharp shift from the practice of previous U.S. administrations that typically gave secretaries of state those responsibilities.

Kushner and Greenblatt were to accompany Trump on his two-day visit, set to begin Monday and include separate meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Trump also planned to visit the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, an important Jewish holy site.

On the eve of Trump’s visit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet approved several confidence-building measures, including construction permits for Palestinians near their cities in parts of the West Bank that had previously been off limits, a senior official said. Under interim agreements 60 percent of the West Bank, known as Area C, site of Israel’s settlements, is under Israeli control and Palestinian development there has mostly been forbidden by Israel.

Speaking on condition of anonymity in line with protocol, he said the package also includes economic concessions and opening the border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan.

White House aides have played down expectations for significant progress on the peace process during Trump’s stop, casting it as more symbolic than substantive. Yet Trump may still need to engage in some delicate diplomacy following revelations that he disclosed highly classified intelligence Israel obtained about the Islamic State group with top Russian officials, without Israel’s permission.

Israel also has expressed concern about the $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia that Trump announced Saturday in Riyadh. Yuval Steinitz, a senior Cabinet minister and Netanyahu confidant, called Saudi Arabia “a hostile country” and said the deal was “definitely something that should trouble us.”

Trump’s first overseas trip as president comes as the dynamics between the United States and the region’s players are moving in unexpected directions.

While Israeli officials cheered Trump’s election, some are now wary of the tougher line he has taken on settlements: urging restraint but not calling for a full halt to construction. Trump has retreated from a campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, bending to the same diplomatic and security concerns as other presidents who have made similar promises.

Palestinians, who viewed Trump’s victory with some trepidation, are said to have been pleasantly surprised by Trump’s openness during a recent meeting with Abbas in Washington.

A senior official who was part of the Palestinian delegation said Trump is planning to try to relaunch peace talks, with a goal of reaching an agreement within a year. The Trump administration rejected a request from the Palestinians to push for an Israeli settlement freeze, but promised to sort out the issue during peace negotiations, according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the private meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Jibril Rajoub, a senior Palestinian official close to Abbas, said Trump was a “serious president” who “seeks to have a real deal, not just managing the conflict.”