Abbas latest Arab leader to visit Trump White House
Washington - Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will become the latest Arab leader to visit the White House when he meets with US President Donald Trump on May 3. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have already met with Trump, as have Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
In announcing the Abbas visit, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump and the Palestinian leader would reaffirm their commitment to “pursuing and ultimately concluding a conflict-ending settlement” to the Palestinian- Israeli dispute.
Abbas in recent weeks met with Mike Pompeo, director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, in Ramallah.
The flurry of Middle East-related activity in Trump’s first few months in office may give the impression that the new US administration is about to launch a vigorous peace process initiative but there is no sign that such a move is imminent. Rather, it appears that Trump and his closest advisers are trying to get the lay of the land to determine what is possible after eight years of frustrated peace efforts under former President Barack Obama.
The environment has been complicated by the fact that Trump — during the election campaign, the transition and his first 100 days in office — has made controversial comments and actions, such as his pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, his nomination of his pro-Israeli settler friend David Friedman to be ambassador to Israel and his suggestion during Netanyahu’s visit that he could accept either a one-state or two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question.
Spicer’s comments spoke of a “conflict-ending settlement,” and not a “two-state solution” as has been the common framing by the United States since the George W. Bush administration.
In this uncertain environment, it is most likely that Abbas will simply make the Palestinian case for two states based on the 1967 borders without expecting much, if anything, in return.
“Abbas will likely have the same core strategic demands: A halt to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, an acknowledgement that the negotiations will be based on the 1967 lines, and the release of high-level Palestinian political prisoners,” Hady Amr, the deputy special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the later part of the Obama administration, said. “It will be difficult for Trump to deliver any of these.” Amr said the Trump team is still in a learning process. “As with many other issues,” he said, “Trump’s team has learned quickly. Talk of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has vanished. Jason Greenblatt, who has been appointed to deal with this issue from the White House, has pursued discussions with seriousness and pragmatism.”
One area in which Abbas may see some progress is in economic support for the Palestinian Authority, something that Netanyahu would be unlikely to oppose.
“During the Obama administration,” Amr said, “we helped curate a series of Israeli-Palestinian agreements from bringing 3G technology to the West Bank to a better Israeli-Palestinian arrangement on the provision of electricity, water and health… even postal services. I would expect that the Trump administration would offer to finalise these arrangements.”
Of all the recent visitors from the Arab world to the White House, Abbas is coming as perhaps the weakest, not only in terms of the Palestinians’ relationship with Israel, but within Palestinian political dynamics as well. His ongoing power struggle with Hamas is no secret and his government has faced protests and demonstrations in the West Bank amid charges of corruption and incompetence.
Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, was on a US speaking tour preceding Abbas’s visit. Speaking at Columbia University in New York, Barghouti predicted that nothing useful would come from the visit because “the Israeli government is drunk with power and impunity, particularly since Trump’s rise to power.”
At the Palestine Centre in Washington, Barghouti said he had “no expectations” for the visit and that Abbas had little choice but to “follow orders [from Trump].”
The real problem, Barghouti said, is that “no Palestinian leader today has a democratic mandate to represent the Palestinian people or compromise on Palestinian rights.”