Daniel R. DEPETRIS
Sitting in a chair across from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting last September, President Donald Trump was sober in his comments. The dispute between Israel and the Palestinians had gone on for far too long, he said, and U.S. officials had failed repeatedly to facilitate a Mideast peace deal that would end the conflict permanently. The Israeli and Palestinian people, Trump said, deserve much better than the status quo that’s held for decades. “I will do everything within my heart and within my soul to get that deal made,” Trump confided to Abbas during a cameo with reporters. “For so many years, I’ve been hearing about peace between Israel and the Palestinians…we’re going to see what we can do.”
At points during Trump’s first year in White House, it appeared that the mercurial, unconventional, scattershot real estate tycoon might just be able to hammer out the “ultimate deal.” He discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (or lack thereof) in somewhat magical terms, all but daydreaming about what a peace agreement would look like in the many interviews he gave as a Republican presidential candidate. During an MSNBC town hall at the beginning of the GOP presidential primary, Trump refused to be goaded into saying what party was at fault for the moribund peace process, telling Joe Scarborough that it wouldn’t help if he started to assign blame. “Let me be sort of a neutral guy,” Trump remarked. Months earlier, he even caused a minor political kerfuffle by questioning whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was really interested in a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Marco Rubio, who at the time was still viewed in Republican political circles as a potential president, was quick to exploit the comment, suggesting that Trump was putting Israel on the same playing field as its enemies.
Up until last fall, Abbas bought into the Trump-as-the-ultimate-dealmaker mystique. After the longtime Palestinian politician met the president at the White House for the first time in May of last year, Abbas all but declared that Trump was the only one who could salvage the two-state solution: “we believe that we can be partners…to bring about a historic peace treaty under your stewardship,” he said.
Whatever good will and mutual trust that existed between the two men is now gone. Nine months is an eternity in international politics, and even longer on matters related to the Holy Land. Abbas is now denouncing Trump as the man who killed the Oslo process for good. The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a commonsense step to many American peace negotiators who have long argued that Western Jerusalem would be given to Israel in a final status agreement anyway, was seen by Abbas as a slap in the face to Palestinian national aspirations. The same man who talked about a rosy relationship with a new American administration in 2017 is, in the first weeks of 2018, attacking that same administration as extremely biased and hostile towards the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state.
The Palestinian national leadership is by all indications done interacting with Washington on the peace file. If there is to be a peace process with Israel, Abbas has made it vocally clear that the Trump administration cannot be the one to manage it. Vice President Mike Pence’s recent trip to Israel, during which he fiercely defended the president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, was taken as further affirmation by Israeli-Arab lawmakers and Palestinian officials that Washington is contributing to the problem. What Pence has called a commonsense move—“The United States,” he said, “has chosen fact over fiction, and fact is the only true foundation for a just and lasting peace”—has been castigated by supporters of the two-state solution as another body blow to peace talks.
Trump has his own grievances, most of which are not new in Washington circles. The White House is puzzled beyond belief as to why the Palestinian Authority continues to grant stipends from its national budget to prisoners who have been locked up in Israeli jails for terrorist attacks. Mideast peace takes a notorious amount of patience, and Trump is not exactly into the whole patience thing; he sees little reason why the U.S. should continue to send hundreds of millions of American taxpayer dollars to the PA if it isn’t interested in participating in a dialogue with Israel. Indeed, two weeks after Trump rang in the new year with two tweets describing the Palestinians as all talk and no action, the administration suspended a $65 million payment to the U.N. agency responsible for caring for the five million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the region. State Department assurances that the aid freeze is not designed to punish the PA will be scant comfort to Abbas given Trump’s previous remarks.
The $64,000 question is how relations between Washington and Ramallah have disintegrated so rapidly. At least some fault lies with the PA, an organization dominated by old men past their prime who have proven over the years to be much more interested in blaming Israel for every conceivable ill than going back to the negotiating room. The Israelis share blame as well: with every house constructed on a West Bank settlement or East Jerusalem neighborhood and every resolution Netanyahu’s party passes, peace is dealt another setback. The Trump administration’s fault lies in the uncensored bluster of its president and a belief that using American aid as a stick will be enough of a sharp object to scare Abbas into U.S.-sponsored peace talks. The absence of a comprehensive peace plan from the White House, despite hundreds of meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials and a year of listening sessions, hasn’t helped either.
So, here we are, over two years after Donald Trump the candidate promised to do everything in his power to solve a problem that no other American president, Republican or Democrat, has been able to solve. It may be that 2018 ends up being historic—the year the last bit of oxygen keeping the two-state solution alive in the discussion is let out of the tank and the idea of a Palestinian state is suffocated to death.