Abbas gets an invitation to Washington but for what purpose?
In a March 10th telephone conversation, US President Donald Trump invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to visit Washington. Indications are that the visit will happen in May.
Four days after the call, Abbas met in Ramallah with Jason Greenblatt, one of Trump’s former real estate lawyers and who has been given an office in the White House and the title of special representative for international negotiations.
The administration’s sudden outreach to the Palestinian leader comes after a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in which Trump suggested that a two-state solution may not be the answer to Israeli- Palestinian peace. Trump’s remarks shocked most observers — even as it delighted the Israeli far-right — and led many to ponder the new administration’s approach to the peace process.
Trump has said on several occasions, during the 2016 election campaign as well as after his election to office, that he would like to be the US president who brokers a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He designated his son-in-law and closest adviser, Jared Kushner, as the point person for the peace process.
Trump also has pledged to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and nominated as his ambassador to Israel a man who appears to be to the right of Netanyahu. In recent weeks, however, Trump and other administration officials have indicated that any embassy move would only come after extensive deliberations. Trump also publicly asked Netanyahu to put the brakes on settlement building.
Do these actions, along with the outreach to Abbas, mean Trump is serious about launching a renewed US-led push for peace?
Trump has high confidence in his ability to make deals — he wrote a best-selling book titled The Art of the Deal — but there is a big difference between negotiating real estate transactions and bringing about peace between two complex societies that have been in often-violent conflict for more than 70 years. As skilful a negotiator as he may be, Trump will face many daunting challenges if he undertakes a diplomatic initiative.
Israel enjoys an immense power advantage over the Palestinians by virtually every measurement and has little incentive to enter into talks that would only result in its making concessions. Netanyahu and his coalition allies appear determined to create a future in which Israel effectively controls all of historic Palestine except for disconnected Palestinian enclaves that would be granted a minimal degree of functional autonomy. Many left-wing Israelis who advocate a two-state solution oppose sharing Jerusalem or addressing the Palestinian right of return.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) supports a two-state solution and was stunned by Trump’s casual suggestion during his February 15th meeting with Netanyahu that a one-state option might be acceptable. The US consulate in Jerusalem issued a statement saying Abbas told Greenblatt that “under President Trump’s leadership, a historic peace deal is possible”. At least Abbas seems to understand that flattery goes far with Trump. (Greenblatt also met with Netanyahu, who described their discussion as “good and profound”.)
Further complicating prospects for a peace initiative is the fact that Abbas and Netanyahu both face serious domestic problems. Netanyahu is the subject of several investigations into alleged criminal misconduct and if indicted almost certainly would be forced to resign.
Abbas is facing pressure in the form of protests and demonstrations. The anger among Palestinians has many roots — not the least of which is their leadership’s failure to end or even ease the Israeli occupation and bring about a halt to Israeli seizure of Palestinian land. Protests have recently focused on the PA’s close security cooperation with Israel, which has led many Palestinians to view the PA as merely a subcontractor to the Israeli occupiers.
Leaders who are weak domestically do not make good candidates for peace negotiations that would require politically unpopular decisions.
Perhaps the main reason to doubt that a major new US peace initiative is on the cards, however, is that such an undertaking would require an immense amount of high-level attention and a willingness by Trump to spend political capital. There has been no sign that high-level attention is part of Trump’s DNA: He flits from issue to issue in a way that keeps even his own staff off balance.
While Trump enjoys considerable political capital — as well as Republican control of both houses of Congress — he has a full agenda of issues both domestic and foreign he must spend it on.
Trump’s dream of being the one who achieves Israeli-Palestinian peace will likely fade away as soon as he realises the magnitude of the challenge. Trump likes winning and when he understands how slim the chances are for winning in the Middle East, he will simply move on to another issue.