During their meeting at the White House on Wednesday, US President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas created a buzz around Middle East peacemaking that serves each of their interests.
For Trump, the buzz enables him to transcend the difficulties of his first 100 days in office and project himself as a statesman and peace visionary. For Abbas, it makes his long-standing agenda of seeking a Palestinian state through negotiations relevant once again.
Small wonder that each cast the other as a great peacemaker in their remarks to the press. Trump conjured up the heady days of the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, putting Abbas in the same league as Nobel Prize winner and peace martyr Yitzhak Rabin.
“You signed your name to the first Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. You remember it well. I want to support you in being the Palestinian leader who signs his name to the final and most important peace agreement,” he said.
Trump-Abbas meeting in Washington. (Reuters)
Abbas seemed on the way to elevating Trump to the status of messiah, which – from the point of view of the Palestinian leader beset by a myriad of troubles – he may for this one moment appear to be.
“Under your leadership and stewardship, your courageous stewardship and your wisdom, as well as your great negotiating ability,” a historic peace treaty could be brought about, he told Trump.
Again, for the moment, this meeting seems to be nothing less than an injection of lifeblood for Abbas. He has staked the latter part of his career on the premise that negotiations are the best means for ending Israeli rule and establishing a state. It was he who pioneered contacts with dovish Israelis in the 1980s, styling himself as the PLO’s expert on Israeli affairs. It was he who oversaw the negotiations with Israel that led to the Oslo Accords in 1994. It was he who with Yossi Beilin co-authored the 1995 Beilin-Abu Mazen document, an attempt to bring about an agreement on final-status issues. During the second intifada, he came out against the “armed uprising,” meaning the suicide bombings, on the grounds that they harmed the Palestinian cause by damaging their international standing and literally blew up the possibility of getting back to his diplomatic strategy.
To Israelis, Abbas is someone who does not recognize the country’s very existence as a Jewish state and dedicated to the use of diplomacy as a means to isolate and wage war against Israel by different means. Moreover, they stress that he has not in fact broken with the armed struggle, one example of which is that he oversees the payment of subsidies to families of slain or imprisoned terrorists.
But plaguing Abbas is the perception among the Palestinians that he has been far too accommodating of Israel and that such a strategy has never paid off. Despite what was seen as a massive concession of recognizing Israel, in the Palestinian view the Oslo Accords did not yield progress toward independence, only the fragmentation of the West Bank and more settlements in the very areas where the Palestinian state was to be established.
With the collapse of peace talks overseen by the Obama administration two years ago, Abbas had been left treading water politically without an agenda. Despite his recent efforts to pressure Hamas, the split in Palestinian politics between Ramallah and Gaza continues with no end in sight. Abbas lacks legitimacy, having been elected in 2005 and now in the eighth year beyond the expiration of his term. Polls show that twothirds of the Palestinian public want him to resign.
But now Trump has declared, “We’re going to start a process.” And the promise of peace, even with no content to back it up, is enough to allow Abbas to swim – at least for a few strokes.
It elevates him, for now, to the status of equal partner to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it raises his standing internationally, affording him credibility. No less important, it puts the Palestinian issue back on the agenda regionally and internationally, after it was relegated to low priority due to the conflagrations raging across the region in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Above all, it enables Abbas to comport himself once again as if his long-standing strategy has a chance, however remote that chance still may be.
But there are big problems in all of this for Abbas. Foremost is that there is nothing concrete beneath the buzz. And with all of Trump’s declarations – “We’ll get it done” and “It’s something that I think is frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years” – there is no sign that he has any plan to move things forward. A buzz without substance can go on for months, but sooner or later it may peter out, to Abbas’s renewed dismay.
A second problem is that Abbas should know Trump’s assertion that “an agreement cannot be imposed by the US on any other nation” cannot be taken at face value. In fact, if the buzz does evolve into some kind of plan – such as organizing a regional peace conference – Abbas can expect massive pressure to enable it to convene, for example, by accepting some degree of continued Israeli settlement expansion.
And there is the risk that the regional framework could very much play to Israel’s advantage, given the perception among Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries that the real issue in the region is Iran, in the containment of which Riyadh shares an interest with Israel.
In the long term, if a conference actually does lead to renewed negotiations, Abbas will be under pressure to make concessions on the core final-status issues.
He glossed over this in his remarks Wednesday, saying, “As far as a permanent solution, we believe this is possible and able to be resolved.”
In practice, however, he will certainly have to make huge compromises, for example, on the perceived right of refugee return that he may lack the political capital to undertake.
Despite the big symbolic boost, in some senses it seems that Abbas is coming away from the meeting with Trump lacking the practical US backing he would want. Trump did not publicly reverse his apparent pullback of Washington’s long-standing commitment to a two-state solution. And Abbas appears not to have gotten the assurances he wanted over a settlement freeze, which his aides said in advance of the meeting was a requirement for a process to begin. And he does not seem to have a commitment, at least not a public one, that the frame of reference for talks will be land for peace.
Abbas, in the short term, can be satisfied with the boost. But in the long term, it is hard to envy this Palestinian leader whose political standing, fortune and survival depend so much on the actions of the unpredictable Donald Trump.