Abbas: Stuck between Trump and Netanyahu

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by Dalia Hatuqa

It would have been a startling assertion had it not been heard before. Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he would not be evacuating any settlements in the West Bank. “We are here to stay, forever,” the Israeli prime minister said at the settlement of Barkan. “We will deepen our roots, build, strengthen and settle.”

There are approximately 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem today, and their evacuation is a principal tenet of any likely solution to the conflict. The last time peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel broke down in 2014 it was mostly over settlements. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry was deeply invested in the process, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had relayed several demands to facilitate his engagement with the Israelis.

But Abbas didn’t get anything he asked for, including the basic understandings about negotiations that Palestinians considered a minimum. His call for a settlement freeze was turned down for a “major slowdown.” When he asked for basing the talks on the 1967 borders, Kerry said he could only support that position in writing. And yet despite how little he was offered, Abbas told the broader Palestinian leadership that he would support resuming negotiations nonetheless.

Various Palestinian political parties disagreed with Abbas’ decision, seeing it as capitulation. And despite Abbas relinquishing, Kerry’s efforts failed as soon as Netanyahu announced approval of thousands more settlement units in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s support for settlements is longstanding. His most recent comments came on the heels of Israel’s marking 50 years of settling in the West Bank, just days after President Donald Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner met with him and Abbas separately.

The meeting between Kushner and Abbas yielded the usual results: an assurance that Trump wanted to secure a “lasting peace” between the two parties, vague references to the importance of direct negotiations, and an assertion that peace would take some time to reach. Abbas had heard it all before, and his frustrations at the lack of clarity began to boil over in the following days.

His exasperation was made clear when he told a visiting delegation from the Meretz party: “I have met with Trump’s envoys about 20 times since the beginning of his term as president of the United States. Every time they repeatedly stressed to me how much they believe and are committed to a two-state solution and a halt to construction in the settlements.”

He did not mince his words, and his desperation was palpable. “I have pleaded with them to say the same thing to Netanyahu, but they refrained,” Abbas continued. “They said they would consider it but then they didn’t get back to me.”

Ever since Abbas was voted president 12 years ago, successive US administrations have made similar promises. Envoys and delegates came to Ramallah and went, and many peace plans were heralded with absolute certainty. The only difference is that Trump’s plan remains a mystery, which ironically was a source of brief optimism for the Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership initially viewed Trump’s ad hoc style as an opportunity to stop the new administration from kicking the can down the road as its predecessors had done.

But that ray of hope was soon extinguished when Abbas began to realize that the current administration would not even commit itself to the two-state solution, the hallmark of the decades-old US-sponsored peace process.

Just recently, State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said a recommittal by the Trump administration to the two-state solution would show “bias” to one side—perhaps an admission that the Israeli government has dropped the pretense of negotiating a peace deal based on two states.

Abbas has also become aware that the company Trump keeps—Kushner, the American ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and special envoy Jason Greenblatt—all have deep personal ties to Israel (and even settlements) and have not been shy about expressing their support for it.

Just last week, in a marked break from standard language used in US diplomatic protocol, Friedman called the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza “alleged.” Greenblatt has previously stated that he does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace, and Kushner’s family has in past years donated to the Beit El settlement.

Meanwhile Abbas is finding himself in the dark with no solid clues given to the US president’s proposed peace plan. According to an Israeli media report, the Americans reportedly asked for a “grace period” to put a plan together.

But as the Trump administration works out its “ultimate deal,” the Israeli population in the West Bank continues to grow: just one day before Kushner’s visit, Israel announced the first new settlement in two decades. After he left, authorities announced they were moving ahead with plans to build 7,000 units in East Jerusalem settlements.

Amid this flurry of uncertainty and doubt, Abbas has bent over backwards to show his new American interlocutors that he is all in. The latest was a series of sanctions he imposed on Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, that included cutting payments to Israel for electricity provided to the coastal enclave, leaving Palestinians with roughly four hours of power a day. He also slashed the salaries of hundreds of thousands of public employees and withheld permits needed for patients to leave Gaza.

As US-led negotiations are the only game in town for the Palestinian Authority, Abbas doesn’t have many choices available. But according to those close to him, he is unsure about how to proceed given the goal posts have been moved once again. “If we don’t know where we are heading, if we don’t know what the end game is, then we are in a desert without a map,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, a senior adviser to Abbas. “We have seen it happen before. We are not going to see it happen again.”

Without even a pledge of support from the Americans for a Palestinian state or a demand to Israel to halt settlement-building, it’s easy to predict how the discussion at the UN General Assembly, convening in mere weeks, will play out. With dwindling support among Palestinians, and rising anger at the political stalemate, Abbas will have to revive his previous threat to head to the International Criminal Court or to ask the UN to recognize a State of Palestine. Washington will try to avert both situations, and the Ha’aretz daily recently reported that Trump will meet with Abbas and Netanyahu on the UNGA sidelines precisely to do that.

“The Americans said they need more time to draft something and asked Abu Mazen not to make international moves like joining additional UN agencies or launching proceedings at the International Criminal Court in The Hague,” a Palestinian official said to Ha’aretz, using Abbas’ nom de guerre.

In the meantime, Abbas and his inner circle will likely just play along, kicking the can down the road even further themselves, as Israel cements its grip on the West Bank and its siege of Gaza. The 82-year-old Palestinian president will try to escape the next four years without being pressured into giving up even more, not daring to take the consequences that he knows come with a refusal to negotiate at all under new parameters.

Dalia Hatuqa is a journalist based in Washington, DC, and the West Bank.

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15 Comments

  1. Perhaps a few hundred thousand Jews in the occupied West Bank should find themselves residents of Palestine.

  2. Dalia- you said 500,000 settlers- many of them, if not all, may have bought the individual pieces of land from the Palestinians or whoever. After about 50 years of the Israeli courts ordering the settlers who stole the land to get out or pay restitution Israelis started to offer to buy and then paid for the land. In the situation of restitution the Israelis were in a bad place because after paying for building a house the court often ordered them to pay much too much for the land.

  3. I wrote this about a month ago but no body was willing to publish it. Now from what you say this appears to be exactly what is happening.

    “President Trump’s new Middle East Peace Initiative.

    While on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel, President Trump, also announced that he would initiate another effort to bring about peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In Israel, after meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu, he announced that Israel would be ready to negotiate peace with a serious and willing Palestinian partner. Sounds encouraging. Even more so since Candidate Trump had stated he no longer believes in a two-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian problem and on coming to office would move the US Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem.
    On assuming office, President Trump appointed Mr. Jared Kushner his son in law, who is also Jewish, to be his special emissary on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Kushner, has made several visits to both Saudi Arabia and Israel and has reportedly cultivated a good relationship with Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the new Crown Prince.
    Normally Kushner would have had an impossible task ahead of him. Israel has in the past, not agreed to any significant concessions to the Palestinians and Kushner cannot pressure the Israelis very much lest he anger President Trump’s supporters in the USA. The Arabs have also balked at any solution that favors Israelis blatantly and this had become a zero-sum game.
    However, we may be seeing some light at the end of this tunnel in the changing geo-political situation in the Middle East.
    Israel’s main interests are that of legitimizing its claim on Palestinian territory occupied by the settlers in the West Bank and establishing a “new normal”. To this end it needs to normalize relations with the Arab world. The nasty ongoing sectarian conflict in the Middle East could provide it a good opportunity to maximize its gains in any peace deal and come away with getting all it wants and giving up very little in exchange.
    President Trump’s interests coincide with those of the Israelis. He would like to be remembered as somebody who brought about a solution of this festering conflict, where numerous past Presidents have failed, without having to pressure Israel to make any significant concessions.
    For this strategy to succeed the US needs to soften up the Palestinians before they come to the negotiating table and neutralize their main supporters. In the past, these have included the Arab countries, including Syria and the Iranians.
    The current US policy in the middle east which targets Iran as the main enemy, a view shared by most Arab states in the neighborhood, underlies the new geopolitical architecture emerging in the middle-east and is very likely to get it the support that it requires from the Arabs.
    The Times of London reported on June 17, 2017 that-
    “Jared Kushner, has discussed an “outside-in” approach, by which Gulf states would improve ties with Israel as a prelude to a peace agreement — and full recognition of Israel by Gulf and Arab states. Saudi Arabia and Israel are in talks to establish economic ties, a dramatic move that would put the Jewish state on a path to normal relations with the bastion of Sunni Islam and guardian of the two sacred Muslim cities”.
    Although Israel has no fear of Iran from a purely military point of view, it has found Iranian support to be a problem since this enabled arms and other supplies being smuggled in to Gaza to support Hamas thru its proxies, notably Hezbollah. It also needs an air corridor over Saudi Arabia in case an attack on Iran becomes necessary. Just insurance to keep the Iranians in check! In the current environment, both seem within its grasp.
    Iranian support for Palestine is no longer guaranteed after the Palestinians have openly sided with the Saudis and against the Iranian in the ongoing conflict between the two in the Middle East. The improving Israeli-Saudi relations coupled with an aggressive anti Iran Saudi kingdom under MbS is likely to give it the air access it needs.
    Israel also has an interest in curbing/eliminating the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, since the Brotherhood has been a staunch supporter of Hamas which controls Gaza. However, these concerns are also shared by Gen. Assisi, the Saudis and the rulers of the Gulf States. This was brought out clearly a few years ago, when the Assisi Government shortly after seizing power in Egypt and at the insistence of the Saudis, closed the Al-Rifah crossing from Gaza to Egypt. This crossing had been opened by the Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood Government and had become the main supply line for the Gaza strip.
    Now Qatar one of the Gulf States, does provide significant aid to the Palestinians and the main funding for re-building Gaza after the Israeli invasion of a few years ago. Its refraining from outright condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood, is also of concern to Israel. The London times report cited above goes on to say-
    “The possibility of closer ties with Israel would partly explain why Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed a sweeping blockade on Qatar, to force the Gulf state to drop its support for Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood, an anathema to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt. ”
    With the Qatar blockade, the only possible holdout to the US sponsored peace deal has been neutralized. The remaining supporter, the Syrians, are in no position to help them.
    What could be the contours of the new deal? A return to the 1967 borders? Not by a long shot. It will possibly be an agreement, that preserves the present borders in the West Bank with minor adjustments to trade some land for the areas on which the Israelis have built settlements. In return Israel will agree to full statehood to the Palestinian authority.
    With pressure from all the above and no support from anybody, Mahmoud Abbas the President of the Palestinian Authority is likely to give in and sign on the dotted line. He will doubtlessly be reminded that Palestinian agreement at Camp David under the President Carter initiative resulted in creation of the Palestinian Authority and President Arafat’s walking out at the Clinton initiative resulted in no gains and a worsening of the situation. In effect, he will be told that “This is an offer he cannot refuse”.
    If he does sign, President Abbas will sell the rump state that he gets to his own people by blaming Hamas’s intransigent approach towards Israel which has resulted in lost opportunities.
    And, guess what- President Trump, Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Netanyahu and MBS may share next year’s Nobel Prize for Peace!

  4. Perhaps it is time for the Palestinians to be realistic. The West Bank will be annexed by Israel. They are not going to remove 500,000 “settlers.” Arabs living in the West Bank will have 3 options: 1) apply for Israeli citizenship but there will be strict requirements and also a cap on how many can be granted citizenship per year; 2) Move to an Arab state or elsewhere, selling their property at market value plus a little extra to the State; 3) Remain as lawful resident aliens with no national voting rights but as citizens of Jordan with whatever voting rights Jordanian citizens have.

    Gaza will sign a peace treaty with Israel and become a Palestinian state. However, if Gaza continues on its present course of hostility, it will have to be annexed as well with its residents having the same options except it will be Egypt not Jordan.

    As for how Israel can “deem” the Arabs citizens of other countries, she will do it the same way anyone “deems” there to be a Palestinian state, by force of will. In any event, Jordan and Egypt once annexed these territories and now they will have to deal with the consequences for their own failure to establish a Palestinian state between 1948 and 1967.

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