WASHINGTON – When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington in February, US President Donald Trump turned to him before a room full of journalists and asked for a partial freeze in West Bank settlement construction.Now Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will take his turn in the hot seat when he meets with Trump for the first time on Wednesday.Abbas is likely to forgo the sort press availability that allowed Trump to pressure Netanyahu in public. But he is expected to participate in over two hours of private and group meetings with Trump, and will receive significant private pressure within those quarters. Trump will also be hosting an event for guests in Washington later that evening.
White House officials say the visit is introductory – an opportunity for Trump to get to know a leader whom he hopes to ultimately cajole into peacemaking. Yet the president and his team are already working privately on ways to pressure Abbas into direct negotiations.In their effort to get Israelis and Palestinians around the same negotiating table after years of distance, Trump administration officials hope that Abbas will offer a tangible demonstration of his willingness to negotiate. That requires some form of concession on an issue that has previously blocked the resumption of talks. Republicans in Washington hope the White House can convince Abbas to end or substantially revise its stipend program for the families of murderers and terrorists convicted by Israel.Several GOP senators, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, called on Trump to pressure Abbas over the policy on Tuesday.Yet, entering Wednesday’s meeting, White House aides are expressing caution, and appear to be tempering expectations over Trump’s ability to extract concessions from Abbas at a time when the Palestinian leader faces a political crisis at home. A hunger strike among Palestinian prisoners has entered its third week, making it difficult for Abbas to compromise on the “martyrs program” during this particular visit.“The president’s ultimate goal is to establish peace in the region,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Monday. “That’s obviously the goal and the discussion that he’s going to have with the head of the Palestinian Authority. But that’s going to be a relationship that he continues to work on and build with the ultimate goal that there’s peace in that region between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”Spicer was also asked whether or not Trump felt spurned by an announcement of new settlements in east Jerusalem.“I’m sure that we’ll continue to have conversations with the prime minister,” Spicer responded. “That’ll be something that the president will continue to discuss.”Spicer noted that White House staff are continuing to look into moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, ahead of an expected presidential visit to the holy city on or around Jerusalem Day.
Trump invites Palestinian leader Abbas to White House (credit: REUTERS)