The Trump effect on the Palestinian arena

Trump takes actions against anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, refrains from criticizing Israel on settlements and shows understanding of a restrained Israeli policy in this domain.

Donald Trump welcomes Mahmoud Abbas to White House in Washington , May 3, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Donald Trump welcomes Mahmoud Abbas to White House in Washington , May 3, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is the common denominator of the recent developments in the Palestinian arena: renewed interest in the Peace process, change to the Hamas political manifesto, or what seems to be a surge in terrorist attacks against Israelis? Of course, it is the new administration in Washington.
President Donald Trump has already managed to have a considerable impact. First, he’s changing the American attitude toward the Middle East power struggle between rival Muslim factions. Whereas Barack Obama promoted realistic radical forces – both Sunni like the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and Turkey or Shi’ite like Iran’s President Rouhani – Trump disassociated the US from most of these partners and instead clearly sided with the pragmatic Arabs in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
They trust Trump more and are willing to consider promoting a regional approach for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more openly than they were ready to under Obama and secretary of state Kerry. The visits by these leaders to the White House and the entire attitude of the recent Arab summit in Jordan, attended by Trump special envoy Jason Greenblatt, attest to this new attitude.
Second, Trump is creating a totally different atmosphere in relations with the Israeli leadership. Gone is the mistrust and animosity that culminated in UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and in throwing Israel under the bus by adopting the terrible nuclear deal with Iran. Trump takes actions against anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, refrains from criticizing Israel on settlements and shows understanding of a restrained Israeli policy in this domain.
Third, while iterating deep zeal to make the ultimate deal and solve the conflict, Trump adopts a different approach to the promotion of peace than that of his predecessors.
Instead of proposing solutions, he focuses on helping the two sides reach an agreement by themselves. He thus refrains from articulating support for the two-state solution, even though it seems that he supports it, and puts more emphasis on improving the economic conditions.
Fourth, Trump supports the promotion in Congress of the Taylor Force Act, which would cut economic aid to the Palestinians if they keep paying salaries to terrorists. He simultaneously supports the promotion of similar steps by Israel’s government and Knesset.
This legislation would give Trump a big stick when he tries to convince the Palestinian leadership to change the Palestinian narrative. This is an inescapable first step toward peace, which is necessary in order to convince the Israeli public to be more supportive of compromise.
Faced with this new policy, the Palestinians find themselves under growing pressure.
Hence, the Palestinian Authority finds it necessary to look for ways to prevent what they consider dangerous developments, like the promotion of a regional initiative or a cut of foreign aid.
So far they haven’t shown any readiness to change their positions. They still condition direct negotiations on the cessation of construction in Jerusalem and the settlements and on the release of prisoners, and they refrain from referring to the Taylor Force Act and parallel Israeli steps.
Hamas is also making cosmetic adjustments without making any substantial changes in its position. Realizing that Egypt is emboldened by the new US policy and that the Muslim Brotherhood has lost its most important supporter, and bearing in mind its dependency on Egypt, it tried to adopt a position paper that would distance it from the harsh antisemitism of its charter and from the political Islamist groups fighting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Hamas is also more restrained on the ground, realizing that it no longer has the option of improving its condition by escalating the situation and expecting the US to help it due to its commitment to the Muslim Brotherhood, as it did in 2014 before and during Operation Protective Edge.
Hamas remains committed to the annihilation of Zionism and the State of Israel through jihad, but understands that the current situation requires more finesse and sophistication. Therefore, it incites terrorism from the West Bank while showing restraint from Gaza, although Hamas hard-liners are vocally opposed to even these small tactical changes in its political documents.
Two points are worth mentioning considering these developments. First, if the new Hamas policy paper is adopted there is not going to be any real difference between the narratives of Hamas and the PA. Both deny the existence of a Jewish people and any sovereign Jewish history in the Land of Israel, both consider Zionists colonizers (and artificially distinguish between them and Jews in general) and justify any kind of struggle against the occupation in their intentionally ambiguous terminology.
Both see the Palestinians as victims of Israel and the colonialist West, both regard their own struggle as an indivisible national and Islamic struggle, and both see as their ultimate and uncompromising goal the liberation of all of “Palestine” and are committed to the so-called “right of return.” The only tactical differences are about the attitude toward the Oslo agreements (Hamas opposes them, the PA accepts them but ignores the Palestinian obligations under them) and the question of which kind of violence should be used at this stage from the West Bank.
Secondly, experience shows that under pressure the Palestinians reconsider their positions and may present creative tactical ideas without ever changing their longterm strategic goals, including a Palestinian state replacing Israel.
If President Trump wants to make the parties forge real peace, he must convince the Palestinians to make real changes in their narrative and accept Israel as the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people. Anything less would mean an improvement of the status quo only, mainly in the economic realm.
Brig.-Gen (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is a former Foreign Ministry director-general and assistant defense attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and head of the Analysis and Production Division of the IDF Directorate of Military Intelligence.