Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
U.S officials are trying to extinguish a mini-political fire in Israel after President Trump's speech last night at a political rally in West Virginia during which he said Israel "will have to pay a higher price" in future negotiations with the Palestinians because of his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
The big picture: While Trump hasn’t spoken publicly for several months about the White House's efforts to draft and launch an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, his statements yesterday — although not choreographed — showed the issue is still on his agenda.
"And you know what? In the negotiation, Israel will have to pay a higher price because they want a very big thing, but I took it off the table. ... There's nothing to negotiate but [the Palestinians will] get something very good because it's their turn next. Let's see what happens. It's very interesting. I've always heard that's the toughest deal of all deals — it's called peace between Israel and the Palestinians."— Trump at the rally
The fallout: Trump's statements got extensive media coverage in Israel and amongst Palestinians. Israeli politicians started issuing statements, quoting Trump as saying Israel "will have to pay a heavy price." On the other hand, Palestinian officials started issuing statements attacking Trump for stating again he has taken Jerusalem off the negotiating table.
- Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, who is visiting Israel this week, saw Trump's statements at his hotel room in Jerusalem several hours before a planned press conference. When asked about Trump's statements at the press conference, he tried to play them down by saying that Trump is a dealmaker who hoped the Palestinians would ask to get something from the U.S. after the Jerusalem announcement — instead of disengaging.
What we're hearing: Senior U.S. officials told me it was important to listen carefully to Trump's words because, unlike what some Israeli politicians said, the president didn't say Israel would have to pay a "high price" — a phrase they said has a very negative implication in the Middle East — but instead "a higher price."
- They added: "The president's words that Israel would pay 'a higher price' simply reflects a desire that our good faith initiatives would be reciprocated. And, just to be absolutely clear, the U.S. will not impose terms upon Israel that are unacceptable."
- Israeli officials told me they got clarifications from senior U.S. officials who explained what Trump meant, saying: "National security adviser John Bolton clarified things in his press conference. We are very satisfied by Bolton's excellent visit which further strengthens the U.S.-Israeli relationship."