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Is Trump now the Palestinians’ best hope for peace?

There is a strong feeling among Arabs that US President Donald Trump’s visit to the region may succeed in reviving the Middle East peace process after years of inactivity. Certainly Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to the White House earlier this month appeared to be more successful and productive than anyone expected, including the Palestinians themselves.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu tried his utmost to derail the visit, the first by Abbas since 2014. He was livid that Trump did not raise — at least not publicly — the issue of the Palestinian Authority (PA) paying salaries to families of slain and imprisoned Palestinians, whom Israel calls terrorists. Netanyahu had sent a letter to Trump urging him to “test” Abbas’ credibility by raising the issue publicly.

Instead, the two men met privately at the Oval Office, and appeared to have established a good working relationship while setting aside most of the talking points prepared for them by their respective aides. Trump asked Abbas if he was ready to cut a deal; the latter apparently assured him he will be a cooperating partner. Apparently Trump complained that Netanyahu was not ready.

A few days later, US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Trump, who will meet separately with Netanyahu and Abbas, will “reaffirm America’s unshakable bond to the Jewish state” while expressing “his desire for dignity and self-determination for the Palestinians.” 

This statement underlined Trump’s renewed commitment to the two-state solution, in a clear reversal from his indifference to the concept — which has been a fundamental pillar of US policy for decades — when he hosted Netanyahu at the White House in February.

Moreover, it now looks like Trump will walk back on his controversial election promise to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday the Trump administration needs more time to consider the move.

There is no doubt Trump, who was hailed by Netanyahu as a true friend of Israel, is now adopting a sober take on one of the most complex conflicts of our time. Despite the fact that the administration is infested by pro-Israel aides and officials, it seems Trump is genuine about his desire to strike a historic deal.

Osama Al-Sharif

Tillerson said Trump “has taken a very deliberative approach to understanding the issue itself, listening to input from all interested parties in the region, and understanding, in the context of a peace initiative, what impact would such a move have.”

There is no doubt Trump, who was hailed by Netanyahu as a true friend of Israel, is now adopting a sober take on one of the most complex conflicts of our time. Despite the fact that the administration is infested by pro-Israel aides and officials, it seems Trump is genuine about his desire to strike a historic deal.

His recent meetings with Jordan’s King Abdallah and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi are believed to have toned down Trump’s rhetoric and moved him slightly toward the center, much to Netanyahu’s angst.

Abbas is said to have given Trump hints on where he would stand regarding land swaps, borders and Israeli security, and even suggested his readiness to accept the deployment of US monitors on the Palestinian side of the Jordan Valley, which Netanyahu insists Israel will keep under any agreement.

For Trump and his top security aides, sealing a final deal between Israel and the Palestinians goes deep into the heart of the administration’s evolving Middle East strategy. The US is wary of Iran’s regional meddling in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

It sees the threat of Tehran’s scheme of securing a land corridor that extends from Iran through Iraq and into Syria and Lebanon as equal to the challenge posed by Daesh and other radical groups to the stability of the entire region.

To confront this clear and present danger, the White House hopes to hammer out a strong Sunni coalition of regional states that share Washington’s Iran menace. That so-called Arab NATO might even have room for Israel at a later stage.

But without a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, Arab leaders — who have underlined the centrality of the Palestinian issue and its resolution based on the Arab Peace Initiative at a recent summit in Jordan — would hesitate to commit to such a coalition.

With Abbas and key Arab states on board, Trump’s biggest challenge will be to convince Netanyahu to accept a resumption of serious peace talks. The latter, who had heaped praise on Trump’s pro-Israel stands even before his historic election last year, will find it politically perilous to rebuff the president’s overtures.

Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners will attempt to suck the air out of Trump’s new push, but Republicans control both houses of Congress in Washington, and will throw their weight behind the president, at least for now. Ironically, the self-described most pro-Israel president in decades now appears to be the Palestinians’ best hope to conclude an overdue historic peace deal.

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.