On 3 May, the US president welcomed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas into the White House and on 22 May, Donald Trump will be going on his first state visit to Israel. His desire to break the impasse of one of the most complex and age-old international conflicts – between Palestine and Israel – is palpable. Virtually every American administration has had its own Middle East initiative, but not one of them has been successful. It seems that the time has come for the White House’s new occupant to put his own unique pressure on this highly-explosive minefield. It is a risky step given the president’s numerous failures so far and could easily ruin his reputation once and for all. He does not really have a choice, however, since it will be impossible to get out of the quagmire in the Middle East without untangling the main conflict ‘knot’.
In his election campaign, Trump did not go to huge lengths to ingratiate himself with the Palestinians, mostly demonstrating his sympathy for Israel. This can be explained, of course, by the latter’s ability to influence public opinion in America. Being a pragmatist who reacts quickly to new circumstances, however, Trump knows that if America’s focus is overly accentuated and one-sided, it will scupper any attempts to resolve the conflict. Hence Trump’s discernible willingness to offer his supposedly impartial mediation services.
A great deal of credit for organising Abbas’ visit to the US belongs to the Egyptian president, el-Sisi, and King Abdullah II of Jordan, who visited the US and met with Trump at the beginning of April. First they convinced the US president that it would be impossible to win over the Arab-Muslim world while demonstrating an openly pro-Israel stance and ignoring the Palestinians. Then at the end of April, before he left for America, Abbas visited Amman and Cairo, where he was given «detailed instructions» on the preferred way to behave with the not-always-so-predictable Trump. It is no secret that even some members of the Palestinian leadership are against any kind of engagement with the US president because of statements he has made in the past. But high-ranking Egyptian and Jordanian officials persuaded Abbas that it was still necessary to go and convey Palestine’s position to Trump directly, who, despite everything, «knows how to listen».
The importance of Jordan and Egypt as the main proponents of Palestinian interests in America is due to the fact that Washington regards them as its closest ‘moderate’ allies in the Arab world. They also have peace agreements with Israel and share a border with Palestine. At the same time, it was Cairo and Amman that were behind the fairly strongly-worded resolution on the Palestinian question at this year’s Arab League Summit held on 29 March. Among others things, it said that relocating the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was unacceptable (Trump had said he intended to carry out such a relocation).
It should be recognised that the Palestinian leader coped with his mission in the US as far as he was able. This was helped a great deal by the fact that a favourable situation had been established within Palestine on the eve of his meeting with the Americans: for the first time in its history, Hamas announced that it was ready to recognise the 1967 borders, meaning it is also ready to recognise the state of Israel. In addition, Abbas did not hesitate to impose sanctions at one point against the ruling Hamas government in the Gaza Strip. It has also been reported that there is a serious possibility of a reconciliation between the Fatah and Hamas movements in the near future. There is no doubt that this enhanced his standing in the recent negotiations. Even Israeli experts like Asaf Gabor, an analyst for the information and analysis portal NRG, are surprised at Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s «exceptional capacity» for «political survival». In this regard, he is being compared to Shimon Peres, who spent a long time on Israel’s political scene. The meeting with the US president at the White House is being seen as yet another example of Abbas’ political talent. America’s plans to achieve a comprehensive deal between Israel and the moderate Arab countries by solving the Palestinian problem «has made Abbas a key player in the Middle East game once more». The Palestinian leader is actively taking advantage of the opportunity afforded him to publicise the demands of his people yet again and show that they are in strict accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
Trump, for his part, has not formulated anything remotely meaningful. He has just stated his «strong» desire for a «definitive solution» to the Palestine-Israel problem, without specifying a single point of this future «great deal». The fact that the US president has almost given up on the idea of «two states for two peoples» is particularly disquieting. After all, this is the premise on which the entire philosophy of the peace process is based. Its alternatives are unrealistic and can only lead to renewed turbulence in the Middle East. Thus, Palestinian leaders have already stated that if international support for the creation of their independent state continues to wane, then their next step will be to give up on the idea. Instead, they will recognise themselves as part of a single state with the Israelis, the current de facto situation, and demand full civil rights. There would be around six million Arabs and the same number of Jews living in this state, but given the demographics, the majority, and the power with it, would quickly pass to the Arab community. Failure to grant Arabs their full civil rights would automatically lead to Israel being designated an apartheid regime, with all its attendant diplomatic and economic consequences.
Incidentally, the Palestinian media is reporting that the number of supporters of this particular option among ordinary Palestinians is growing rapidly. For understandable reasons, Israel’s leaders regard this option as simply unacceptable. Their version of giving up on the «two state for two peoples» idea, which Netanyahu is trying to sell to Trump, involves returning to the pre-1967 status. In accordance with this, the Gaza Strip would be handed over to Egypt in its entirety, and the western bank of the River Jordan would be returned to Jordan in a considerably reduced form. The main settlements established there and the whole of Jerusalem would naturally remain part of Israel. This sounds fanciful since it is not only the Palestinians who are opposed to the plan, but also the alleged ‘beneficiaries’. For political, economic and security reasons, neither Egypt nor Jordan even want to hear about anything like this. It is easy to imagine the kind of chaos the region would be plunged into should there be any attempt to realise these so-called alternative options
At a joint press conference with Abbas, Trump, with his characteristic bravado, announced the «start» of the process that, as he put it, will lead to peace. According to the US president, throughout his life he has always heard that the toughest deal on earth is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. «Let’s see if we can prove them wrong», suggested Trump.
As local journalist Amir Tibon writes, Israel is «surprised» at how quickly the Palestine-Israel problem found its way onto Trump’s agenda and the speed with which he is tackling it. Not without a little sarcasm, he refers to this behaviour as «a personal obsession» of the president. Tibon believes that neither side of the conflict, nor the majority of the White House staff, were prepared for such a course of events. Uri Savir reports that there are fears within the Israeli leadership that Trump’s recent meetings with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Palestine may have influenced him with regard to accepting the famous Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. However, if the Americans think that relocating the US embassy to Jerusalem will be enough to persuade the Israeli leadership to make concessions, then they are mistaken.
On the Palestinian side, well-known journalist and media activist Daoud Kuttab also notes that the majority of Palestinians do not have high hopes that Washington’s recent resurgence of activity will lead to a solution. Kuttab believes that if Trump’s first 100 days in office proved to him how difficult it really is being president, then he will soon find that «getting Israelis to concede occupied Palestinian territories as part of a land-for-peace ‘ultimate deal’ is much, much harder». Returning the occupied territories according to the «land for peace» formula as part of a ‘final solution’ to the conflict is an almost impossible task.