No matter what is happening in the world, soon after Inauguration Day, every new US administration enters the vortex of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The priority given to moving toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians reflects the significance of the region to US interests, the extraordinary US-Israel partnership and the yearning of presidents, conscious of their own eventual legacies, to help achieve the elusive goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, and beyond that, wider Arab-Israeli peace.
Whether this is the right time to try to jump-start the stalled peace process is debatable. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama – each taking his own distinctive approach – all had periodic moments of progress, but also many disappointments and missed opportunities.
But all recognized, as do the parties to the conflict, that over decades of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, US leadership in facilitating negotiations has been essential, as it will undoubtedly be in closing any potential deal.
President Donald Trump, in his own way, is following that routine, making Israeli-Palestinian peace a top foreign policy objective. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visiting the White House was as fundamental to US re-engagement in the peace process as Trump’s earlier meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with the leaders of the only two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel – Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
FOR ABBAS, visiting the White House is a tradition.
As President Trump noted, Abbas was present at the Rose Garden signing of the Oslo Accords in 2003.
He has been coming regularly since ascending to the PA leadership after Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004. He hosted both president Bush and president Obama in Ramallah.
Still, Abbas overall has been more obstructionist than facilitator in advancing peace. The last US effort to encourage direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed in 2014 when Abbas refused to continue. He subsequently ignored Netanyahu’s repeated overtures to resume the talks. He did not find time to meet with the Israeli prime minister when he came to Jerusalem for Shimon Peres’s funeral, and never responded to Netanyahu’s offer, articulated at the UN General Assembly last September, to address the Knesset.
Instead, Abbas has long focused on an international path that projects the illusion of statesmanship but, by bypassing Israel, does not help guide the Palestinian people to peace. Now that Great Britain has rebuffed Abbas’s demand to apologize for issuing the Balfour Declaration a century ago, the PA is threatening to sue the British government.
And since becoming a UNESCO member six years ago, the PA has energetically worked with Arab countries to frame and pass resolutions aimed at undermining Israel’s – and, more fundamentally, the Jewish People’s – connections to Jerusalem.
How does this strategy to erode Israel’s legitimacy square with recognition of Israel as a neighbor and peace partner? In advance of his White House visit, Abbas changed his tone, saying he would meet with Netanyahu under Trump’s “patronage.” And he publicly stepped up his complaints about Hamas, declaring that the PA will stop paying Gaza’s electricity bills.
He knows, of course, that while periodic cuts in electricity take place, Israel is unlikely to shut off the supply completely, or cut back on transferring humanitarian supplies at the border crossings. Israeli assistance remains critical since Arab nations have failed to fulfill their pledges to aid Gaza after the Hamas-initiated 2014 war of rockets, missiles and tunnels.
That Abbas has no influence over Gaza was confirmed by a Hamas statement after Abbas met Trump.
“No one has authorized Mahmoud Abbas to represent the Palestinian people, and no one is obligated to any position he’s issued,” said spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza.
With Trump publicly committed to trying to advance the peace process, what he will say when visiting Israel and Bethlehem later this month is attracting considerable speculation. Clarity of US policy and goals will be critical.
First, President Trump should state clearly that the US continues to consider direct, bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations the only viable path to achieve comprehensive peace.
Second, he should make clear that the two-state solution remains the destined outcome of any peace talks.
At the same time, Gaza’s status must be addressed at some point. This significant piece of a putative Palestinian state, which Israel handed over to the PA a dozen years ago, remains under Hamas control. The terrorist organization, in its new policy document, still refuses to join with the PA in recognizing Israel.
Third, the president, following up on what he told Abbas at the White House, should call on the PA to end incitement and payments to terrorists, and also encourage the PA leader to take concrete measures to reform Palestinian educational materials and Palestinian media to truly nurture a culture of peace.
Fourth, President Trump should affirm unequivocally that Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel, and to that end announce that the US embassy in Israel will move to Jerusalem.
Fifth, he should encourage the Saudis and other Gulf states to take concrete steps to engage with Israel openly, not only to cooperate in combating common regional adversaries, but also, harking to the 1990s when Israel and two GCC members established trade offices, move toward closer relations on many fronts.
The record of past pitfalls is clear, and the administration should not underestimate the challenges ahead.
But, then again, similar obstacles were present nearly 27 years ago at Camp David, when the contours of a peace were first envisioned. As President Trump indicated, if the parties are willing, it is worth trying.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.