“If Hillary Clinton had been elected, the Palestinians would now be meeting with [former Middle East envoy] Dennis Ross to discuss small confidence-building steps in the West Bank,” Nathan Thrall, author of the recently released book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, told me. “It would amount to putting a pretty face on basically the same [Israeli] occupation, slightly adjusted, while putting off any potential resolution of the conflict for at least four years.”
Palestinian optimism has been further fueled by Trump’s talk of an “ultimate deal” to solve the seemingly intractable conflict. So far, and despite his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem—a move the Palestinians staunchly oppose—it remains in Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster recently spoke of Palestinian “self-determination,” a euphemism for statehood. And on Tuesday in Bethlehem, Trump said he was “truly hopeful” the United States can mediate an agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. These examples have so far exceeded whatever low expectations the Palestinian leadership had, and dismissed their initial fears that the new administration would effectively ignore them.
“The Palestinian Authority leadership felt terrified that they will be completely marginalized, sidelined and neglected,” Alaa Tartir, program director of Al Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network, told me. “They devoted lots of effort ... and sent delegations to urge Trump to meet Abbas,” turning the outreach into something of “a national priority.”
Trump’s opening to Abbas was an accomplishment in itself: He was one of only a handful of leaders invited to the White House in Trump’s first few months in office. On May 3, he stood side-by-side with the new president, beaming with pride, as Trump lauded him for his role in signing the Oslo Accords in 1993. Abbas reciprocated, praising Trump’s “leadership, stewardship, wisdom, and great negotiation ability.”
But apart from the niceties these two exchanged, there was no U.S. plan to speak of. The two-state solution, the hallmark of the American-guided approach to solving the conflict since the early 1990s, was absent from the talks in both Washington and Bethlehem. Like everyone else, the Palestinians were merely told that Trump would “get it done.”
“The leadership did not care enough about the content of the meeting, but rather ... about appearing as an indispensable actor in the region,” Tartir said. “Conducting the meeting became an end in itself.”
Yet even with the knowledge that Trump does not have a plan, the PA is surprisingly optimistic. “There is no approach, there is no mechanism, there is nothing,” Husam Zomlot, the new Palestinian envoy to Washington, told an audience at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C., on May 15. “We did not discuss or agree on exactly what would be the way forward, but so far the U.S. administration is engaging all sides separately. We believe this might be a good approach.”