The US is launching a new diplomatic effort to reach a comprehensive peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, President Donald Trump said on Wednesday while hosting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House.
Reminding Abbas that he signed the 1993 Oslo Accords in Washington – the first diplomatic framework for Israeli- Palestinian peace – Trump said he was impressed by the ability of Israeli and Palestinian security forces to work together, and that such cooperation gave him hope that he could finally broker the toughest deal of them all.
“We’ll start a process which hopefully will lead to peace,” Trump said in the Roosevelt Room. “Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Let’s see if we can prove them wrong.”
Peace requires Palestinian leadership to speak with a united voice against incitement, the president added: “There’s such hatred,” he said. But Trump did not ask for specific commitments from Abbas in public.
“We want to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump told Abbas. “We will get it done. We will be working so hard to get it done. It’s been a long time, but we will be working diligently – and I think there’s a very, very good chance. And I think you feel the same way.”
Abbas said he looked forward to working with Trump in order to “come to that deal, to that historical agreement to bring about peace,” but then laid out familiar terms that have become increasingly unpalatable for Israelis: a sovereign Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem and borders based on lines from before the 1967 Six Day War.
“It’s about time for Israel to end its occupation of our people and our land,” the PA president said. “We are coming into a new opportunity, a new horizon that would enable us to bring about peace.”
Abbas also expressed confidence that the fate of Palestinian refugees and of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails will be resolved based on “existing international laws and agreements.”
Briefing reporters on Trump’s plans for peace, White House press secretary Sean Spicer characterized the president’s personal negotiating style as the missing key to success. Trump is bonding with both leaders, building up anticipation for a deal that he is confident will come to fruition in due time, the press secretary said.
Spicer added, however, that the White House would not be spelling out details of the upcoming negotiation in public.
For years, the PA leadership has demanded that Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel, and their descendants, be allowed the “right to return” to within Green Line Israel – a nonstarter for the Israelis – and that Israel release Palestinians convicted of murder and terrorism.
Trump hosted Abbas in the Oval Office at a private meeting before the men opened it to their staffs. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Jared Kushner were in attendance.
In recent weeks Trump consulted with several leaders from the Arab world, in hopes that a regional approach will increase his odds of rebooting the Middle East peace process. When he hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February, Trump expressed a deep interest in brokering a comprehensive peace accord and called on Netanyahu to “hold back” for the time being on settlement construction in the West Bank.
Trump had wanted to put similar pressure on Abbas but faced political hurdles, including the PA leader grappling with a crisis at home over a hunger strike by Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails for murder and other terrorist offenses.
Over a working lunch, Trump told Abbas that forging Middle East peace “maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
“We need two willing parties,” Trump said. “We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing.”
The president’s national security adviser and his deputy, H.R. McMaster and Dina Powell, joined the lunch along with top economic adviser Gary Cohn.
“There are a number of positive conditions in place,” Tillerson said. “I know under your leadership that we hope good things will happen.”
Hamas, the main rival to Abbas’s Fatah party, rejected the PA leader’s statements soon after the press conference concluded.
“No one authorized Mahmoud Abbas to represent the Palestinian people, and everything that he issued in terms of positions are not binding,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri posted on Twitter, adding that Abbas’s comment that all final-status issues can be resolved was unacceptable.
“These national Palestinian rights belong to the Palestinian people, and no one has the right to relinquish them,” he wrote.
Immediately after those comments were made, a former adviser to Abbas, Diana Buttu, expressed skepticism on Twitter over the point of the summit: “Abbas will get nothing from this meeting,” she wrote.
A reception in Abbas’s honor was to take place across town on Wednesday evening. Several Washington guests were scheduled to attend, including the leadership of J Street, an American Jewish group that lobbies in favor of a two-state solution.
Abbas spoke in Arabic during his joint statement with Trump, but offered one sentence in English at the end: “Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope,” he said, then turned to face the president.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) dismissed Trump’s announcement of a new peace process.
“Abu Mazen arrived in Washington as he continues to transfer money to the families of terrorists. It’s clear to anyone who is intelligent that Abu Mazen isn’t interested in peace,” Hotovely said, using the other name by which Abbas is commonly known.
Those payments along with the incitement in the Palestinian textbooks prove that Abbas is not interested in striking a deal with Israel, Hotovely added.
She also took issue with Abbas’s call to end the “occupation.” “The nation of Israel isn’t an occupier in its land. We have been deeply rooted to our land for 3,000 years and we will continue to settle the land,” Hotovely said.
Spicer said that, behind closed doors, Trump expressed concerns to Abbas over the payments scheme. But Republicans had hoped that Trump would make it more of a public ask – a move that would demonstrate Abbas’s political will and ability to proceed with a genuine peace process.
MK Omer Bar Lev (Zionist Union) immediately offered Netanyahu the support of his party from the opposition for any measures he would need to take in moving forward with the peace process.
MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) called on the Left in Israel to put forward its own initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than wait for Trump to be its “messiah.”
US special envoy Jason Greenblatt is expected to update Regional Cooperation Minister and acting Communications Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) about the Abbas- Trump meeting on Thursday in Brussels, Channel 2 reported. The two are scheduled to attend the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee annual spring meeting hosted by High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and chaired by Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende. Palestinian and United Nations representatives will also attend the meeting, which coordinates donor funding to the PA.Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.