US-Palestinian relations slide deeper into crisis mode

The Trump administration has been working on a Middle East peace plan since entering office but few details have been revealed.
Sunday 23/09/2018
Palestinian protesters fly national flags and chant anti-Israel slogans in the West Bank village of Khan al-Ahmar, on September 16. 					                     (AP)
Brewing storm. Palestinian protesters fly national flags and chant anti-Israel slogans in the West Bank village of Khan al-Ahmar, on September 16. (AP)

LONDON - “Palestinian rights are not up for sale or negotiation. We will not be subject to blackmail and threats by the American administration,” said Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the United States.

Zomlot’s statement came after the Trump administration announced it decided to close the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) mission in Washington. The decision plunged US-Palestinian relations deeper into crisis mode.

US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, in a statement, that the PLO, the internationally recognised representative of the Palestinian people, “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

She added that the Palestinian leadership “condemned a US peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the US government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise.”

PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat called the move a “dangerous escalation” showing that Washington “is willing to disband the international system to protect Israeli crimes.” The State Department also cited Palestinian attempts to prosecute Israel in the International Criminal Court as a reason for the closure.

“Washington’s attempt to strong-arm the PLO into concessions over core components of Palestinian identity could endanger the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) very existence,” said Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst for Israel-Palestine at Crisis Group.

Tensions between the United States and the Palestinian leadership have been running high for months. A key turning point was US President Donald Trump’s decision in December to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

By subsequently moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump fulfilled a long-held Israeli demand, which Palestinians say undermines their claim to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. In protest, PA President Mahmoud Abbas suspended interactions with the US government.

The Trump administration in August said it would not provide additional contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The United States had been the single-largest donor to the agency.

Earlier the administration said it would redirect $200 million in funds allocated for economic programmes in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. On September 8, a State Department official said Trump ordered $25 million in aid for six hospitals in East Jerusalem to be redirected to “high-priority projects elsewhere.”

Such decisions harden attitudes of Palestinian moderates and “alienate average Palestinians and moderate Arab governments,” said Gary Grappo, a former US ambassador and head of mission of the Middle East Quartet in Jerusalem. “All this will make a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more difficult.”

The Trump administration has been working on a Middle East peace plan since entering office but few details have been revealed. “Even if the Trump administration has yet to formally unveil its peace plan, it is already moving to reshape the traditional peace-making process and realities on the ground,” said Hugh Lovatt, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

There were strong indications, he added, that the United States was moving from “its traditional support for the creation of a fully independent and contiguous Palestinian state on the pre-June 1967 lines in favour of an autonomous Palestinian ‘state’ with limited sovereignty and undefined borders.”

Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top diplomat, has called such a situation “a one-state reality of unequal rights [for Palestinians], perpetual occupation and conflict.” It would mean the end of the two-state solution.

Against this backdrop, “the fight against the Trump peace plan seems to have become a new rallying cry for President Abbas and a new political raison d’etre,” said Lovatt. He cautioned, however, that “Abbas has yet to invest himself in a viable alternative strategy.”

With consistent rumours about Abbas’s health, there has been speculation about who could succeed him. There is fear that a succession struggle could lead to violence in the Palestinian territories.

What is more, efforts to bring about reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority, which is dominated by Fatah, and Hamas have failed. Abbas has been under pressure to alleviate the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave ruled by Hamas.

A renewed international focus on Gaza has been a source of concern for the Palestinian Authority. “The Palestinian leadership is worried that the US is using the Gaza issue and Israeli-Hamas ceasefire talks to sideline and undermine the PA,” said Lovatt.

This could also pose a risk to Israel, said Zalzberg, who argued that Israel’s right-wing government is so opposed to the Oslo process, which 25 years ago ushered in an era of limited Palestinian self-governance,  “that it may fail to limit the dangers that US overreach poses to the PA’s very existence, which is viewed by most in government as a fundamental Israeli interest.”

Israeli journalist Gideon Levy said while most Israelis were happy about “each Palestinian catastrophe… only the army is concerned because they understand the possible outcome: another wave of violence.”

Grappo said he did not foresee major changes to US and Israeli policy. “The current dynamic is decidedly in favour of Israel,” he said. “Therefore, the US and Israel are unlikely to change course for the foreseeable future.” Palestinians, he concluded, “have reached the low-water mark in their efforts to establish a state.”