For decades American presidents have tried, with varying degrees of effort and to varying degrees of success, to negotiate a peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Donald Trump, with his apparent lack of interest both in policy detail and in pretending the U.S. is a neutral party, could be uniquely qualified to accomplish what has eluded his predecessors.
Since the Camp David talks of the mid-1970s, the term "peace process" has mostly meant American-led negotiations. That in itself is a problem: When the U.S. takes too large a role in the talks, it removes the pressure from Palestinian and Israeli diplomats to arrive at a deal on their own. But Trump has shown little capacity for the kind of long-term, sustained attention that allows Israelis and Palestinians to abdicate their leadership.
That attention, full of "shuttle diplomacy" and frenetic attempts at legacy-building, rarely moves the peace process forward in a meaningful way. U.S. disengagement, by any avenue, could create the space for real progress.
Trump has also shown little interest in upholding some of the fictions of American diplomacy. When he declares that his administration will "always stand with Israel," he adds none of the nuance of the Obama era, when such language of friendship was constantly coupled with promises to hold Israel accountable. Trump's rhetoric matches the reality on the ground: Since Israel is one of the top recipients of U.S. military aid, negotiators won't see Washington as a neutral party even if the U.S. would like to assume that role.
Trump has, in fact, said he wanted to remain neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Let me sort of be a neutral guy," he said at one campaign stop last year. "I don't want to say whose fault is it. I don't think it helps." This desire did not stop Trump from making unabashedly pro-Israel statements during the campaign or since taking the presidency. With any other politician, a desire for neutrality would be incompatible with statements of unqualified friendship. But Trump is not a typical politician, and his propensity to make contradictory statements without even attempting to reconcile them has arguably destroyed the credibility of his presidency.
Whatever else that might do, it could have the salutory effect of giving Israeli and Palestinian negotiators the impression that they're on their own. A long series of active and respected American presidents have been unable to move the peace process forward. Maybe an inactive president with little credibility is just the jumpstart the negotiations need.