Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be meeting with US President Donald Trump Wednesday following a fresh declaration of intent by the latter to forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
With the expansion of settlements eroding hopes for statehood, Abbas would like to see Trump come to the rescue by pressing for a complete settlement freeze and ensuring that the terms of reference for restarting peace talks are based on land for peace. But Palestinian observers think Trump is an unlikely savior and that any pressure that is brought to bear will actually be against the Palestinian side.
In an interview with Reuters late last week, Trump said: “I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians. There is no reason there is not peace between Israel and the Palestinians – none whatsoever.”
Since taking office in January, Trump has met with Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah twice, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and will now meet with Abbas.
Abbas calls for international protection for Palestinians, says ready to work with Trump (credit: REUTERS)
His point man on Arab-Israeli relations, Jason Greenblatt, has met with Netanyahu and Abbas. This, taken together with what was first reported in The Jerusalem Post last month based on Israeli sources, that the administration is exploring convening a regional peace conference that would bring Gulf countries, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians together, gives a sense that something is being cooked up.
But Abbas comes into this dynamic situation – and his meeting with Trump – in a weak position. Abbas is hard pressed to answer charges that he cannot claim to speak for all Palestinians, with Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip despite recent moves to try to bring it back under his control. And regionally, the Palestinian issue is a low priority, with the Middle East aflame and wars raging in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
“The Palestinians are divided, the region is unhappy with Abbas and the Palestinians and wants to move forward with normalization with Israel because it wants to contain the Iranian threat,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at al-Azhar University in Gaza. “There are much bigger problems in the region. Abbas is in a very delicate position.”
Abbas will try to convince Trump that a settlement freeze is essential if the diplomatic process is to be renewed. “Any political process without a settlement freeze will not come to pass,” Ahmad Majdalani, a senior PLO leader who is close to Abbas, told the Post. “Settlements are destroying the two-state solution. If there is no settlement freeze, we can’t talk about a political process.” But it remains an open question as to how much weight this argument can carry in the face of Netanyahu’s opposition and his ability to cite coalition constraints.
Majdalani said Abbas will be bringing a clear message to the American administration.
“We want positive and true cooperation and partnership with President Trump to realize peace and stability and fight terrorism. As long as there is an occupation, there will be no peace and stability in the region,” he said.
Ghassan Khatib, a former PA minister who is now vice president of Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, sees the meeting as an important chance to explain the Palestinian perspective to Trump.
“I think Abbas is going to take this opportunity to present the Palestinian side of the story rather than to ask for certain things. We Palestinians look at this meeting as the first-ever opportunity for a Palestinian side of the story to [be told to] President Trump. Trump has been very well-acquainted with the Israeli side of the story. Therefore, he has been very one-sided in his impressions. This meeting is important because he, the president, will listen to the other side of the story.”
But many Palestinians are uneasy about the US president or at least skeptical of his assertions of the need for a peace deal.
“Historic deals in politics are harder than historic deals in real estate trades,” said Qais Abdul-Karim, a left-wing member of the PLO Executive Committee.
“I don’t know if it’s possible that the Trump administration, with all its clear close relations with Israel, could be in a position to actually prepare the ground for a historic deal to end the conflict. One can be hopeful, but you also have to be realistic.”
Hasan Khreisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a critic of Abbas, said nothing good will come out of the Trump meeting.
“Trump is a businessman. He wants to deal in a package and in his package we have to lose and Israel will win. He’s an imbalanced man, it’s difficult to judge where he’s going and he is not stable,” he continued. “Today he said one thing, the second day he’s talking the contrary. In 100 days, his government has been shaking all the time and he didn’t succeed in anything.
“All American presidents, when they come in, they say they are serious about peace,” he added. “But unfortunately they do nothing, because they are pro-Israel and they will not do anything to pressure Israel.”
Abbas is hoping being feted at the White House will boost his standing, according to Abusada.
“It will show the Palestinians and Arabs he is a credible partner, that he is being recognized by the US as a partner for peace. He will try to show the Palestinians and Arabs that he deserves to be treated in a respectful way,” he said.
But in fact, if Trump does move determinedly in the direction of a regional conference, Abbas will be in a bind, Abusada said.
“The train is about to start moving, and if Abbas is not part of that train he will be left behind. Trump could go for a regional peace with the Palestinians, but if the Palestinians are not ready he might go for a regional peace without the Palestinians. Either way, the Palestinians are not in a good position,” he continued. “If there is a regional peace conference with them, they will have to make unprecedented concessions on Jerusalem, refugees and final borders and will be pressed to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. These are the kind of big concessions that Abbas will be asked to do.
And that’s what scares the Palestinian leadership about meeting Trump.
“When you look at the advisers – Jason Greenblatt, Jared Kushner and David Friedman – you realize the pressure won’t be on Israel, it will be on the Palestinians,” Abusada added.
Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (now the Institute for National Security Studies), said he believes Trump will want to be able to present something as the fruit of his meetings with Arab leaders and Netanyahu and his expected visit to Israel later this month.
“He’s got to declare some sort of process, but to his credit he has never said what the deal would be. This is because he doesn’t know,” he remarked.
One possibility, Alpher said, is to stress an “economic peace,” meaning more investment, more joint industrial zones and other ventures.
“I can see this being presented as an entrée to this process, that ‘we’ll improve the atmosphere by improving the economic situation,’” he added.
Majdalani, in his remarks to the Post, warned against an economic peace approach.
“Developing Palestine’s economy is important, but we need to make sure that the focus is on ending the occupation. The economy cannot truly be developed without the end of occupation,” he said.
Khatib, Bir Zeit University’s vice president, cautioned against high expectations for Wednesday’s meeting.
“I think it’s overly optimistic to say that we are about to restart the peace process. If you want to look at it in an objective way... any process launched by the American administration will have to deal with Israel giving up large parts of Palestinian land and any such discussion will create a crisis in the Israeli government. So any kind of process will put the American administration in contradiction with the right-wing Israeli government. They may go for management or side issues. I don’t think they will go for anything more substantive,” he said.