Year of speculation over ‘Deal of the Century’ sours US-Palestinian ties

All major Palestinian factions, including Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, have rejected the peace plan.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Bitter pills to swallow. A member of Palestinian security forces stands in front of a poster of President Mahmoud Abbas during a protest against US decision to cut funds to UNRWA, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, last September. (AFP)
Bitter pills to swallow. A member of Palestinian security forces stands in front of a poster of President Mahmoud Abbas during a protest against US decision to cut funds to UNRWA, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, last September. (AFP)

LONDON - Last year was a turbulent time for US-Palestinian relations. The crisis between Washington and Ramallah goes back to US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decision was heavily protested by Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Throughout 2018 speculation about the Trump administration’s policy towards Israel and the Palestinian territories revolved around the so-called “Deal of the Century,” an initiative spearheaded by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and aide, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s representative for international negotiations. Having presented himself as a dealmaker, Trump expressed the desire to achieve what no president before him had managed to do: end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

US-mediated negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians collapsed in 2014 before the start of a major war in the Gaza Strip. The Trump team has remained tight-lipped about its plan, revealing few details about the bargain it was working on. Nevertheless, Kushner has indicated that an economic plan was at the heart of the deal.

“Israel’s prosperity would spill over very quickly to the Palestinians if there is peace,” Kushner told Al-Quds newspaper in June, adding that neighbouring countries Jordan and Egypt would stand to benefit. What is more, Kushner said, the region would become more connected through “very significant investments in infrastructure from the public and private sectors.”

As the year dragged on, the Trump administration stated at various points that the deal was almost finalised, while stressing that no exact release date had been set. In a recent interview with Fox News, Kushner said the peace plan would be released “in the next couple of months.”

He added that “this plan will keep the Israeli people safe and give them a good future but also give a real opportunity and hope for the Palestinian people so that they can live much better lives.” Kushner cautioned that “not every side is going to love” the proposal.

Almost two years into the Trump presidency and six months after the Al-Quds interview, details remain scarce.

“While we are still awaiting the details of a future US peace plan, in practice the Trump administration appears to be rolling back decades of policy supporting Palestinian statehood,” said Hugh Lovatt, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

All major Palestinian factions, including Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, have rejected the peace plan. The United States closed the Palestinian mission in Washington and drastically cut funding for the PA, UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and other projects in the occupied territories.

“Such steps,” Lovatt said, “will be difficult to reverse, even under future administrations in Ramallah and Washington.”

The United Nations and PA on December 17 began an appeal for $350 million in aid for Palestinians in 2019. Speaking in Ramallah, Jamie McGoldrick, the UN humanitarian coordinator in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, said the United Nations would be able to assist fewer people than last year. He warned that Gaza faced a “dire humanitarian situation.”

The Trump administration’s decisions to cut funding and sever ties with the PA will affect Washington’s role as the main broker of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Lovatt argued. “A future US peace plan that goes against long-standing international consensus positions on how to resolve conflict will, in all likelihood, further undermine US ownership of this file,” he said.

Media reports said the Trump administration had hoped Saudi Arabia would pressure the Palestinians and other regional players to accept the US peace plan. However, after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and amid intensified scrutiny of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, such efforts might be less forthcoming. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is said to have taken a stronger stance against concessions towards Israel.

Abbas has been aiming to shore up support in Cairo and Amman at a time when tensions are high in the West Bank after a series of attacks. He is warily eyeing developments in the Gaza Strip, ruled by Hamas. Observers said the PA fears being cut out of a deal that results in large-scale humanitarian relief to Gaza.

Despite past reconciliation agreements, inner-Palestinian divisions persist. Abbas has tried to pressure Hamas by limiting supplies to Gaza. This has included withholding fuel or stopping payments for the electricity supply to the enclave.

In this climate and with Israeli elections next year, many remain sceptical about the Deal of the Century’s chances of success. The damage to the US-Palestinian relationship, at a “low point,” “this time round may be more enduring,” Lovatt concluded.

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