President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem declaration is a departure from a 50-year bipartisan policy on the city, and is perceived as reckless. And as French President Emanuel Macron told Abbas in Paris last week, the US may have marginalized itself as a mediator.
Furthermore, and in the view of many, the US announcement, vague as it was, has delivered a fatal blow to more than 25 years of American-sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But to believe that the US has no place in a future peace settlement is fanciful at best.
For now, contacts between the White House peace team and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have been suspended, at Abbas’ orders. The aging Palestinian leader is pushing ahead with unilateral actions of his own, requesting membership in 20 UN and international bodies and mulling ways to gain full recognition as a state under occupation. Israel will surely react, and escalation by both sides will only complicate an already complex situation.
But when the current storm over the US decision dissipates — and it will at some point — the Palestinians will have to seek international endorsement for a resumption of peace talks under new circumstances. The biggest hurdle will come from Israel’s side.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now relieved that he will not be under pressure to respond to any peace plan coming from Washington so long as the Palestinians maintain their rejection of US mediation. Furthermore, he can stick to his position that only Washington is recognized by Israel as an honest broker.
The Palestinians need to think clearly about their options. They can take their case back to the UN, but with US objections they are not expected to achieve much. Replacing the US with another player, such as France or Russia, will not work, and neither country has expressed a willingness to do so.
Reviving the role of the Middle East Quartet is an option, and the Palestinians can request that other countries and bodies join in, but while this move will enjoy international support, it will have to cross US and Israeli hurdles.
The sad fact is that even as the US loses some of its control in the region as Russian and French influence gain traction, the special relationship between America and Israel will not be affected anytime soon. The same applies to Washington’s hold over peace negotiations.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must realize that the US is the only country that, in theory, can apply pressure on the Israelis.
Added to Palestinian frustration is the fact that Iran’s regional threat continues to overshadow the issues of Israel’s occupation and the two-state solution as the only means to end it. Since the Palestinians have turned their backs on Washington, the Trump administration may decide to put off plans to unveil its own peace proposal, leaving Abbas to hang out to dry.
Waiting it out, as in holding his position until the Trump era is over, may prove suicidal for Abbas. Israel will use the diplomatic hiatus to speed up plans to colonize what remains of occupied East Jerusalem and alter its cultural and demographic character forever. Otherwise he could step down and allow a new leadership to take over and perhaps resume contacts with the Americans.
Meanwhile, Abbas must remove remaining obstacles threatening fragile reconciliation efforts between Palestinian factions. He must give the go-ahead to plans to reform and restructure the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the only all-encompassing national platform.
And he must be ready to take drastic measures that could include the disbanding of the PA to raise the cost of Israel’s occupation. Unless Israel feels the need and urgency to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians, it will never be compelled to come to the negotiating table.
It took more than two decades for Abbas to realize that the US cannot be an honest broker or fair mediator. He is now convinced that it should not hold an exclusive right to such mediation.
But the stark reality is that the US is the only country that, in theory, can apply pressure on the Israelis. And as we saw during the Obama presidency, there are limits to US sway on Israel. But unless the regional balance of power changes dramatically, the US role in finding a lasting peace remains essential and indispensable.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010