President Abbas goes to Washington
For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, arriving in Washington this week will almost certainly summon a somber sense of deja vu. Donald Trump will be the third US president that the 82-year-old Palestinian leader has met at the Oval Office since 2005. While much has changed in Washington in the past few months, the bilateral agenda, at least for Abbas, has not. That agenda includes a resumption of negotiations and financial aid.
Abbas has not set foot in the White House since March 2014, when President Barack Obama made a feeble attempt to revive the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Back then, as it is now, the thorny issue of freezing Israeli settlement building in east Jerusalem and the West Bank hindered any hope of meaningful progress.
Since then, the US chose to take a step back and abandon efforts to bring the two sides together. Obama felt frustrated by an intransigent Benjamin Netanyahu and while his administration poured billions of dollars into Israel, relations between the two men remained frigid at best. Little did that help the Palestinians. Israel unleashed aggressive settlement building plans while discrediting Abbas and his troubled Palestinian Authority (PA). Without further US intervention, Israel’s insatiable appetite for more Palestinian land was never checked.
Now President Trump believes he can do better. In the first 100 days of his presidency, he has met Netanyahu, King Abdallah of Jordan and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. While raising eyebrows over his apparent indifference toward the two-state solution, Trump invited the Palestinian president to pursue and ultimately conclude “a conflict-ending settlement between the Palestinians and Israel.” What this settlement will look like or what it will be based upon is unclear. Observers say that Trump’s Middle East policy remains a work in progress.
He knows that he cannot afford to alienate Trump. Without US mediation and active involvement, the peace process has no chance of forging ahead.
Before his arrival, pro-Israel media outlets launched a campaign to undermine Abbas. He was taunted for his weak and divisive leadership and his failure to upend Hamas in Gaza. He was attacked for heading to the UN and its agencies to gain recognition for the state of Palestine. He was also mocked for demanding that Israel ceases its settlement activities in the occupied territories — an unacceptable precondition for Netanyahu. On the Palestinian side, he was accused of failing to support the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike for fear it may weaken his grip over the waning Fatah movement. Certainly, his invitation to Washington worries the Israeli leadership. No one knows what Trump will say or commit himself to, in spite of the fact that his appears to be the most Zionist-leaning administration in decades.
On the other hand, Abbas knows that he cannot afford to alienate Trump. Without US mediation and active involvement, the peace process has no chance of forging ahead. Can he afford to remain steadfast in his uncompromising positions? Or will he consider his mere audience with the US president as a satisfactory victory after years of appearing irrelevant? After all, his PA is financially starved and his popularity in the West Bank is at a historic low. From his solitary prison cell, the charismatic Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences in Israel, is indirectly challenging Abbas’ leadership. His recent decision to slash the salaries of Gaza employees did not win him any friends in the besieged strip. His insistence on maintaining security coordination with Israel has alienated him from the young and rebellious Fatah cadre.
Still, he is expected to publicly re-affirm his commitment to the two-state solution and to the Arab Peace Initiative, which was revived at the latest Arab Summit meeting in Jordan. He may even dare plead the case of the 1,400 Palestinian prisoners who have been on a hunger strike for more than two weeks — including tens in administrative detention — who are demanding better prison conditions. He must also bring up the controversial subject of Israeli settlements, which has made the prospect of realizing the objective of a Palestinian state weaker than it has ever been.
Trump may have other ideas, including holding a regional peace conference that picks and chooses elements of the Arab Peace Initiative — i.e. normalization before statehood. Certainly, departing from the aim of a two-state solution will open the conflict to all sorts of alternative scenarios and Netanyahu has one or two up his sleeve.
There is no doubt that in spite of Arab support at the recent summit, the Palestinian leader feels that he is very much on his own. The Middle East is in a mess and Trump’s priorities, so far, center on defeating Daesh and checking Iran’s regional expansion. The US president could visit the region at the end of this month to discuss these pressing issues. How far will he go to put the peace process back on track and secure a final deal remains an open-ended question.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.