WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump hopes to earn the trust of Palestinians this week when he receives their president, Mahmoud Abbas, at the White House. But a hunger strike among Palestinian prisoners in Israel now in its third week may complicate his plans.
A strike that first began with an op-ed in The New York Times from Marwan Barghouti – a popular figure among Palestinians convicted of five terrorist murders by Israel – has spread to roughly 1,200 security prisoners, amounting to one of the most significant political challenges that Abbas has faced in years.
It is the sort of crisis that boxes Abbas in at home, but provides him with significant leverage abroad as he seeks to rebuff US calls to compromise on his conditions for negotiating directly with Israel.
That is not good news for the Trump administration, which had plans to apply moderate pressure on Abbas to demonstrate his commitment to a meaningful peace process during his visit on Wednesday.
Abbas may demand a prisoner release as a precondition to direct talks – a bitter pill for Israelis across the political spectrum to swallow, and an unpalatable prospect for a White House that has fashioned itself as staunchly pro-Israel since taking office.
But he may also agree to a one-off, face-to-face meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a gesture of goodwill to the US president. Abbas would do so knowing that such a meeting unsubstantiated by follow-up plans would have minimal political impact at home.
Examples of Palestinian incitement against Jews , Israel (credit: PRIME MINISTER'S OFFICE FACEBOOK)
“The cost of something like this, a face-to-face meeting, tends to be very limited. Most of the public would just shrug,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who formerly served as executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine. “And its territory he’s very familiar with: Both Israelis and Palestinians are very skilled at maneuvering negotiations and assigning blame.”
The Trump administration will also have to choose how to handle a Republican initiative in Congress that, if passed into law, would defund the PA over its compensation scheme for terrorists and the families of terrorists.
Under different circumstances, this sort of legislation – named after a former US Army officer, Taylor Force, slain by a Palestinian terrorist during a stabbing spree at Jaffa Port last year – might have been used as leverage by the Trump administration over Abbas.
But “the whole issue of martyrs is a practical issue that resonates with a wide section of Palestinians who either directly or indirectly identify with these prisoners,” said Omari, who questioned whether Abbas could reasonably leave Washington having compromised on the program.
“It would be seen as a betrayal of those who sacrificed for the cause,” Omari continued, “and in the middle of a hunger strike in prisons, it would be like spitting in their faces.”
At the beginning of his administration, Trump listened to the advice of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and directed his team to act as if it were impartial on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new president stepped back from his promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, called on Israel to constrict its settlement activity and endorsed a comprehensive solution to the conflict in any form so long as both sides agree to it.
The goal was to rebuild American credibility that had suffered during several aggressive peace initiatives orchestrated by the Obama administration. Trump thought he needed to build trust on both sides. But according to those advising him, Trump also believes he is well positioned to apply pressure in order to jump-start the peace process.
Trump has considered endorsing a version of the Taylor Force Act, and is also looking to cajole regional Arab governments to apply pressure on the PA themselves – a move that would undercut Abbas’s argument that the Palestinian cause is a core conflict in the Middle East.
Trump could justify publicly pressuring Abbas by pointing to remarks he made during a press conference with Netanyahu in Washington in February, in which he turned to the prime minister and pointedly asked him to “hold back for a bit” on settlement construction, senior administration officials say. White House aides would then argue that Trump is being tough on both sides, insist that Israelis and Palestinians alike will need to compromise, and ask Abbas to simply demonstrate his ability to do so.
“[Abbas] is likely to hear that there’s a seriousness on the peace issue – that the president is for real and that it’ll require tough decisions on both sides,” said Dennis Ross, a senior Middle East diplomat and veteran of the George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations. “There will be some effort to ask of him something non-abstract – something on incitement that’s real.”
Netanyahu on Thursday set his side of the table for the meeting, posting on his Facebook page and Twitter feed a two-minute video clip of Abbas, other Palestinian officials and school-aged children inciting violence against Israelis.
“For peace to come, this must stop,” reads an overhead to the video.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office said the clip was put up in order to keep the issue on the agenda when Abbas visits Washington.
The clip starts with Abbas saying last May that Israel continuously raises the issue of incitement in the media, schools, books and official statements. “Indeed, we are inciting,” he is showed declaring.
It also has Abbas saying that “we welcome every drop of blood spilled for Jerusalem.” In addition, there is a clip of Fatah Central Committee member Tawfiq Tirawi saying that “Hitler wasn’t morally corrupt, he was daring,” and Jibril Rajoub, the secretary of the Fatah Central Committee, declaring that “if we had a nuke, we would’ve used it this very morning.”
There are also shots of schoolchildren declaring they are ready to stab Jews, and chanting “Palestine is an Arab land from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea.”
Ross, who is informally advising members of the Trump team, acknowledged the difficulty of pressuring Abbas on the issue of incitement during a time of crisis. “I think anything being asked of him, he will find it difficult,” he said.
But “you can’t say you’re for two states if you are, at the same time, allowing there to be a kind of legitimization of attacks on Israelis,” Ross added. “It isn’t to say that there will be a set of specific asks with a specific time line, but I think you’ll see them asking for a demonstration of seriousness from the Palestinians.”
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.