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Israelis skeptical of Trump ahead of visit

As the US president's visit nears, nobody in Israel knows what to expect. Donald Trump wants an Israeli-Palestinian deal. But the Israeli right has stopped rejoicing, and the public is skeptical, reports Miriam Dagan.

Trump and his administration did what they do best ahead of his trip to Israel on Monday and Tuesday: send contradictory signals. When news came that the president was planning a visit to the Western Wall, Jews' holiest place of prayer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked to join him.

It's a stop not usually made by Western dignitaries as a matter of standard diplomatic procedure, because it is part of the Old City of Jerusalem that Israel annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War - a move not recognized by the international community.

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Netanyahu's suggestion ended with contention. When a senior US diplomat responded with, "It's not your territory, it's part of the West Bank," Israelis were shocked. The White House later stated that it doesn't share that view. Nevertheless, Trump plans to go to the site without Israeli officials.

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Trump says he's committed to working for Israel-Palestinian peace

Itinerary details aside, Trump has disappointed the Israeli settler movement and the right by speaking out against construction in the West Bank, contrary to earlier promises and declarations. Now, in what's seen as a dramatic breach of the Israeli intelligence community's trust, he may have leaked sensitive information to Russian officials.

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Left-leaning media in Israel have been keen to report that the tables have been turned on Netanyahu, with headlines like "Netanyahu fears Trump's cooking something big" in Haaretz. The paper quoted Tzipi Livni, a highly respected opposition politician and former chief negotiator with the Palestinians, after meeting with Trump's Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt: "We have a huge opportunity. The president is talking about his determination to close a deal; that is, to end the conflict. We have a president who thinks big and addresses the hardcore."

But the US president has not exactly turned from the hero of the Israeli right into the hope of the Israeli left.

Israeli diplomat and US-Israel relations expert Alon Pinkas told DW it is wrong to think Trump will be able to impose a solution.

"Trump may apply pressure, and the left may think Netanyahu won't be able to resist him because he's not Obama. But Netanyahu would just use that as a pretext for elections, saying that he doesn't have support from his coalition."

Little hope

According to Pinkas, Israelis are very skeptical of Trump, while average Israelis haven't seen anything to make them change their minds on the conflict: "No one believes the Palestinians, and no one likes settlements. Israelis are disillusioned, tired of talking about these issues, and hoping the situation in the West Bank is going to go away like a headache."

Indeed, Israelis seem to harbor little hope that Trump will change anything.

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"A deal is not going to happen; it would be a miracle," said Shalom Rahabi, a middle-aged Jew of Yemenite descent. "You can't know what's going to happen," added his friend Dani Abuker. "Trump changes his mind all the time." But in Rahabi's opinion, the Palestinians are too divided. "How can we make peace if they are not at peace with each other? I promise you, if [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas makes a deal with us, he will be murdered by his own people."

Mazi Haiman and Arale Gabay

Mazi Haiman and Arale Gabay think Trump could bring Netanyahu and Abbas together

Tel Avivian couple Mazi Haiman and Arale Gabay said there was a chance: "Trump is a clown, but there is a possibility that he will move something." Seeing that he could get Netanyahu and Abbas to at least talk with one another, they added that "meeting at a table is always better than meeting at the point of a gun. But Netanyahu will do everything to prevent two states."

A young recent immigrant from France, Benjamin Bitan, was more pessimistic: "Trump acts out of strategy. His purpose is not to help Israel. He's not a good president - he points fingers at people for their ethnicity; he's divisive." Another recent young immigrant and student at a modern Orthodox synagogue in Tel Aviv echoed that view: "Trump is not interested in peace with anyone," said Laura London, who moved to Israel from Germany. "Look, he wants to build a wall with Mexico."

In Jaffa, Umar al-Ghubari, an Arab who lives in Israel proper and has Israeli citizenship, also believed there was no prospect for peace, but for other reasons. "Trump may be able to make some kind of deal," he told DW, "but it won't be a deal that's good for the Palestinians. The US has always supported Israel, and Trump won't change that. Any deal would not do justice to the Palestinians." He said the only real solution would be one state with an Arab majority - in effect the end of a Jewish state.

Umar al-Ghubari in Jaffa

Umar al-Ghubari doesn't see a future where Arabs and Jews live together in a Jewish state

A Jordanian visitor on the streets of the ancient port town, Sheikh Omar al Mukhtar al Shatnawi, expressed a very different opinion: "Yes, Trump has a chance to make peace. All of our country's leaders have the duty of continuing the process that Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein started when they made peace with each other in 1994.

Esther Rubinstein, an American-Israeli who raised four children in Israel and has dual citizenship, supported the American president. "I voted for Trump," she said candidly, "and I pray that he will do the right thing. We Israelis want peace, and we've tried it - we pulled out of Gaza. But we have to take care of ourselves. We can't depend on anyone."

Feel-good speech?

With that view, she echoed what many supporters of the right appreciate about Trump. He doesn't have what they feel is the common attitude from outside diplomats: thinking they know what is best for Israel and assuming the Palestinian side thinks and acts as they do, based on democratic values.

In his first interview in Israel, to the pro-Netanyahu newspaper "Israel Hayom," incoming US Ambassador David Friedman promised Israelis would feel good about the speech Trump will give here.

"The US won't dictate how you should live together; that is something you will have to decide on your own," Friedman asserted.

After all the mixed messages, that may have been reassuring to some Israelis. However, Trump is not known for sticking to his script.

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