Sources at a meeting between United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and U.S. President Donald Trump said that Trump described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the more difficult country to deal with in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. A senior White House official later denied Trump made such a comment.
Guterres and Trump met for 15 minutes at the U.N. Assembly in New York on Sept. 19. Haaretz claims six Western diplomats and one former senior Israeli official told them that half of the meeting dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
"Trump said both leaders are problematic," said one Western diplomat. "But the general context was that from the two of them, Netanyahu is the bigger problem."
Trump met with Netanyahu the previous day in New York, Haaretz reports. Speaking before the meeting, Trump spoke optimistically.
"We are going to discuss peace between Israel and the Palestinians; it will be a fantastic achievement," Trump said. "We are giving it absolute go -- there is a good chance it could happen. Most people would say there is no chance whatsoever, but I think that with the ability of Bibi [Netanyahu] and the other side -- I really think we have a chance."
Trump added that his administration, the Israelis and Palestinians would all "like to see" a peace deal happen.
Netanyahu had come to the meeting prepared to talk about the Iran nuclear deal. He said he would be open to talking about peace with the Palestinians, but emphasized that it must also come with peace from the Arab states.
A diplomat said Trump told Guterres at the U.N. meeting that he believed he could be the first president to make a peace deal with both nations, according to Haaretz. He said the conditions for a peace deal were right given that the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was getting old and would need to find a way to leave a legacy behind. As for Netanyahu, Trump believes he'll be willing to make a deal with him, because he knows that no other president will be more sympathetic to his country's security needs.
The diplomats reported that Guterres supported Trump's pursuit of a peace deal and also thought there was a possibility of coming to an agreement.
The White House later denied the report of the meeting.
“This was a short but productive meeting that primarily focused on U.N. reforms and the great job [U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki] Haley has been doing," a White House official said. "After discussing the United States’ defense of Israel at the U.N., the participants quickly addressed the ongoing peace conversations. The president said that he feels both sides want to make peace and he remains optimistic about an enduring peace deal. We are focusing on our productive conversations and not on the noise created by spoilers."
Despite the controversy over what Trump reportedly said to Guterres, Middle East Eye reports that Abbas has been receptive to Trump’s effort to make a peace deal: "I think we have a pretty good shot -- maybe the best shot ever. I certainly will devote everything within my heart and within my soul to get that deal made ... So we’ll see if we can put it together. Who knows? Stranger things have happened."