Elephants in the Room

The Irony of Trump’s Trip to Masada and the Hard Road to Peace

The president’s strategy for a peace between Israel and the Palestinians appears to be one of “outside in."

Tourists visit the ancient hilltop fortress of Masada in the Judean desert on April 21, 2014. Masada, a ruined desert fortress steeped in myth, symbolism and controversy, is an archaeological site seen by many as an emblem of Israel's fighting spirit two millennia after 960 Jews are believed to have committed suicide on the isolated, wind-swept plateau rather than surrender to the Romans.  AFP PHOTO/THOMAS COEX        (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
Tourists visit the ancient hilltop fortress of Masada in the Judean desert on April 21, 2014. Masada, a ruined desert fortress steeped in myth, symbolism and controversy, is an archaeological site seen by many as an emblem of Israel's fighting spirit two millennia after 960 Jews are believed to have committed suicide on the isolated, wind-swept plateau rather than surrender to the Romans. AFP PHOTO/THOMAS COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s first trip, to the Middle East and Europe rather than Canada or Mexico, looks fascinating on paper. The president will first visit Saudi Arabia, where is he slated to meet not only with King Salman but also the leaders of the other five Gulf Cooperation Council states. In addition, he is scheduled to meet with an unspecified number of leaders from elsewhere in the Muslim world in order, as the president put it, “to begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries.”

He will then visit Israel, where, in addition to meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he will give a major address at Masada, the desert fortress described by the Jewish historian Josephus as the locale for the Jews’ last stand against the Romans, some three years after the war of A.D. 68-70. The president will also meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the second time in as many months. He will then meet with Pope Francis to discuss reconciliation among the Abrahamic faiths before attending the NATO summit in Brussels, where he will also meet with leaders of the European Union.

The objectives of the trip are as ambitious as the schedule is intriguing, but the president runs the risk of leaving a trail of mixed messages upon his return to Washington. His comments regarding deterring Iran and combating the Islamic State will certainly be appreciated by all of his various audiences. On the other hand, he may find it difficult to reconcile his opposition to extremism — and his clear desire to broker a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel — with his visit to Masada.

It was the most extreme faction of Jewish zealots, called the Sicarii, that seized the mesa in the Judean desert and held out against Rome’s X Fretensis Legion for the better part of a year before supposedly committing mass suicide. Josephus records that the Sicarii killed 700 Jews in the town of Ein Gedi, which is not far from Masada, ostensibly to prevent their subjugation by Rome. The Talmud, for its part, relates that the Sicarii burned Jerusalem’s granaries to ensure that the city’s Jews, desperate for food, would be forced to fight the Romans rather than negotiate peace. The history of Masada and its fighters hardly furnishes a model for an agreement with the Palestinians or for an appeal to moderates throughout the region.

The president’s strategy for a peace between Israel and the Palestinians appears to be one of “outside in,” enlisting the Sunni Gulf states in particular, to work with Egypt and Jordan to pressure the Palestinians into accepting a deal — the general contours of which have been understood for years. The premise underlying that strategy is that Israel and the Sunni states share a common fear of Iran and of Islamic extremism, and would formalize their currently clandestine relationship if only the Palestinian issue could be resolved. The degree to which the Sunni states would be willing to pressure the Palestinian Authority (PA) is less than clear, however, given that they seem rather comfortable with the unofficial contacts they have with Jerusalem currently — and their doubts that the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians is anywhere near resolution.

Indeed, both Abbas and Netanyahu remain hostages to the hard liners within their respective societies. Abbas, who leads Fatah as well as the PA, still has to contend with Hamas, which not only remains Fatah’s bitter enemy, but also continues to call for Israel’s destruction. Indeed, Abbas cannot even get his own camp to silence the ongoing incitement against Israel, or to cease payments to the families of terrorists who have killed Israelis. Nor has Abbas shown any readiness to accept that Israel cannot absorb all of the descendants of Arabs who left Israel from 1948 onwards.

As for Netanyahu, he has shown not the slightest inclination to confront the more radical elements within his governing coalition, or their vocal supporters, by restraining the ongoing expansion of settlements on the West Bank. Even his policies regarding settlements that he concedes are “illegal,” have hardly been consistent. Indeed, whenever such a settlement is taken down, those who have established it are fobbed off with land elsewhere in the West Bank.

There may come a time, when both Abbas and Netanyahu have left the scene, that an “outside in” strategy may yet prove to be feasible. It is, after all, not a new idea; Secretary of State Alexander Haig attempted to implement it in the early 1980s. He failed, as has every peace negotiator before or since, whether that person was a Democrat or Republican, whether president or career official. President Trump, who has begun to recognize that governing the United States is not as simple as he thought, may reach the same conclusion after he returns home from his visit to the intractable and chaotic Middle East.

Photo credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, May 10, 2017: The Jews’ last stand against the Romans in Masada occurred three years after the war of A.D. 68-70. A previous version of this article mistakenly said the war happened in 68-70 B.C.

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