Relaying an unusually pessimistic outlook on Middle East peace, a White House official said today Trump administration senior envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt and the Palestinian leadership have not spoken in nearly seven weeks, breaking contact after President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
President Abbas has also rebuffed Trump repeatedly since last December, the official told pool reporters in Jerusalem, as reported by the Los Angeles Times’ Brian Bennett.
“[It is] unfortunate that the president has so many times reached out to explain how dedicated he is to helping the Palestinian people,” the official said, adding a “disconnect” exists in that the Palestinian leadership does not believe Trump.
“I have not reached out to them… They know my phone number and they know that I’m always available. So I’ve not spoken to them nor have they reached out,” the official later acknowledged.
When asked about specifics of the administration’s Middle East peace plan and a timetable, the official noted efforts have been harmed as of recently. “We are hitting a bump right now. Some would call it a huge bump. Some would call it an expected bump,” he said, adding “there’s really no point in trying to guess” when a deal will be reached.
“It will come out both when it’s ready and when both sides are actually willing to engage on it. But we see no benefit whatsoever in trying to guess when it will come out,” the official said.
Those comments from the White House stand in contrast to a statement made by Vice President Mike Pence also today where he alleged the announcement on Jerusalem’s status helped the peace efforts.
“I truly do believe, as the president does, that in making the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the peace is now more possible not less possible,” he told Fox News’ Shannon Bream.
Pence was in Israel today and yesterday as the last leg of a Middle East tour that included stops to Jordan and Egypt. Jerusalem was a sticking point in those discussions, where the Vice President said he and Jordan’s King Abdullah had “agreed to disagree” on Sunday.
Yesterday, Pence said the U.S. would relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the next year.
As to why Trump decided to make the controversial announcement in the first place, the White House official clarified it was a campaign promise the president wanted to keep and not considered a bargaining chip.
“The announcement wasn’t to get a concession out of Israel. It was to recognize the reality of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel both historically and since the founding of the state. This was not a negotiating tactic,” the official said.
“The president made a commitment during the campaign to do it. He also views this as recognizing the truth. We believe peace can only be built on truth. This wasn’t meant to negotiate with Israel,” the official continued.
As to whether the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would meet at an upcoming date with the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, or the special envoy for Middle East Peace Jason Greenblatt, the official said no such meeting was on the books, “There is no planned summit, but we are here — ready, willing and able to engage in dialogue with President Abbas, with his team, at any particular time.”
Pence’s trip to the region comes a week after a fiery speech made by Abbas where he cursed Trump and declared the moribund peace process dead. Abbas’s leadership council has also voted to temporarily suspend recognition of Israel. The back to back remarks were the most cantankerous statements made by Palestinians toward the U.S. in recent memory.
While the speech hasn’t sunk the U.S. and the Palestinians into an all-out diplomatic crisis–the Palestinians haven’t officially walked–it has instigated Trump to withhold more than $100 million in aid to Palestinian refugees in an attempt to force the Palestinian leadership to return to negotiations. Even if back channel peace talks are resumed, the White House official has set their hopes low.
“We’re not arrogant enough to say that the peace deal we’re going to deliver will solve the problem, but we’ll only know if they engage in dialogue,” he said, “And [Abbas] refusing to engage in dialogue — and worse, the harsh rhetoric that [the Palestinians] are speaking — isn’t going to get us to even step one, which is: What do you think of the plan? And how would you like to negotiate the plan?”
This article was updated on January 24, 10 a.m.