Trump Just Got Palestinians' Hopes Up

Possibly to a dangerous degree

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House in Washington D.C. on May 3, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House in Washington D.C. on May 3, 2017. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s official delegation and the Palestinian mission in Washington haven’t been this ebullient or enthusiastic in at least a decade. One can certainly understand why. Abbas’s visit to the White House, strikingly early in the new Trump administration, is a political and diplomatic bonanza for Abbas as leader of the mainstream nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA). For them, it’s not a moment too soon.

The PLO mission in Washington celebrated with a reception for Abbas that welcomed a veritable D.C. who’s who on the issue, including representatives of pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and others not usually at the head of such guest lists. But now that the party (literally) and the honeymoon (figuratively) are over, the deeply daunting work to translate the positive atmosphere into even modest progress between Israel and the Palestinians will begin in earnest. Painful hangovers all around are a distinct likelihood.

The Palestinian enthusiasm for Donald Trump may be surprising to many, but it’s hardly mysterious. By prioritizing Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Trump administration has resurrected the Palestinian issue on the world stage (and hence also on the Middle Eastern stage) after several years during which it seemed to recede into the background. Indeed, Palestinians were despairing that their issue had been simply lost in the crush of other priorities such as the wars in Syria and Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State and the spread of al-Qaeda, the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East and Saudi-led efforts to counter that. In its last two years, the Obama administration, and especially Barack Obama himself, seemed to lose interest in the peace process and the Palestinian issue, having apparently concluded that there was little or nothing that Washington could accomplish given the regional circumstances and the attitudes of the parties toward one another.

Now, suddenly, the peace process, for all its faults, is back—and it’s being pushed by the White House and the new American president, no less. Palestinians can be forgiven for feeling like Lazarus, whom some might regard as a distant ancestor.

Moreover, for Abbas personally and for his movement, the political lifeline is equally dramatic, badly needed, and, hence, profoundly welcome. Abbas’s popularity has been sinking in the absence of diplomacy with Israel, a stagnating West Bank economy that is being neglected by international donors, and the resurgence of forms of corruption that had been significantly reduced under former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Abbas, who is 82 and not in the best of health, is suddenly surrounded by a series of political challenges that amount to jockeying for succession. A group of Palestinian “security prisoners” in Israeli jails, led by the most popular Palestinian political figure, Abbas’s rival in the Fatah party, Marwan Barghouti, are engaged in a highly-publicized hunger strike for better conditions. Barghouti has ridden prisoner issues, which are among the few that can sometimes unite Fatah and Hamas activists in the same campaign, to unrivaled credibility with the Palestinian public.

But with Abbas being fêted in the White House, and standing next to the new American president, his status and authority as Palestinian president is practically unassailable. He joins those pro-American Arab leaders, almost all his regional allies, such as the Gulf Arab monarchs and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, as one of Washington’s “traditional Middle Eastern partners” who were estranged under Obama but who are now being warmly embraced by Trump. Barghouti may still be a possible successor, but he’s hardly a rival under the present circumstances, which find him in prison while Abbas is in the White House.

Hamas, too, has been trying to complicate life for Abbas and the PLO by issuing a new “amended charter” that drops the group’s categorical anti-Semitism, does not mention its relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood movement (of which it is a part), and suggests it is open to the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. However, it does not replace or abrogate the infamous 1998 charter, renounce violence and terrorism, or open the door for any form of recognition of Israel. From a Palestinian point of view, the main point is a simple one: Until Hamas accepts the authority of existing Palestinian treaty obligations undertaken by the PLO (universally recognized as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people), it cannot join the PLO or take part in Palestinian governance or diplomacy in any meaningful sense. All other benchmarks are secondary at best, particularly from the point of view of Palestinian foreign policy. In order to be viable, Palestinian institutions must adhere to the binding nature of their diplomatic representatives’ national undertakings. This is the basis for the only real asset Palestinians have: their international diplomatic presence and role.

Hamas’s conundrum is virtually irresolvable. Were they to accept the legitimacy of Palestinian diplomatic undertakings, most notably the 1993 recognition of Israel, they would be pursuing the same goal as the PLO and the PA—the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967—and the main distinction between the two would again be Hamas’s reactionary religious conservatism. Such an Islamist social agenda is not now, and is unlikely to be in the near future, the ticket to Palestinian majority support. Therefore, Hamas cannot openly accept, in a categorical and unequivocal way, the two-state goal they know full well is the most Palestinians can hope to achieve. Instead, they have to continue to try to outbid the PLO and the PA on Israel by continuing to promote and practice violence, insist on maximalist demands, and rule out recognizing Israel. The new Hamas document also indicates the extent to which the organization is still split between those who see the need to move beyond the 1988 charter, and the crippling impact it has on the organization’s international brand and national viability, and those who won’t countenance it. Now, as is typical, Hamas wants to have it both ways, and to be able to say to its hardcore base that it hasn’t changed at all while telling the international community, including the Arab world, that it is born-again moderate.

Hamas’s main audience for the new document is probably the government in Cairo, which is in a position to determine much of who and what can come in and out of Gaza. The Egyptian government has terrible relations with Hamas, which it accuses of abetting Islamist radicals in Sinai, and regards as an unwholesome extension of its mortal enemy: the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, under Hamas’ misrule, Gaza is being severely squeezed not only by Israel, but also by Egypt and even the PA, which has recently cut salary payments for public servants in Gaza and declined to foot the electricity bill for Israeli providers. None of them are likely to be impressed with the new Hamas document, and neither is Washington.

Indeed, such cynical and wholly unconvincing maneuvers only make Abbas look even better both at home and abroad, as he stands next to the American president in the White House and reiterates a solemn commitment to a two-state solution and opposition to violence. Moreover, the substantive content of the new Hamas document, such as it is, almost entirely concedes that the Abbas/PLO/PA approach has been correct, at least in terms of its broadest national goals. So, both his new friends in the White House and his old enemies at home have given Abbas a desperately needed shot of political adrenaline. No wonder the Palestinian delegation was so upbeat on Wednesday night and ready to embrace at its formal reception what it called a “mosaic of America” that cares about the issue.

Yet significant pitfalls lie ahead. For all his effusive praise of Abbas and statements of determination to “get this done,” at their joint appearance Trump strikingly did not make any explicit reference to the creation of a Palestinian state, merely to “peace.” As with his ambiguities on settlements, potential for moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and some other hot-button issues, Trump still seems to be open to a real shift from long-standing American approaches. None of these would be to the Palestinians’ advantage. The economic initiatives for the West Bank being pursued by Trump’s chief negotiator Jason Greenblatt will, if realized, certainly help stabilize the situation. But expectations are being raised, possibly dangerously, for progress that may not be achievable.

Many Israelis argue that an interim arrangement is the best that can be accomplished under the current circumstances. For Trump, this could be a big win, and maybe what he has in mind when he speaks of “peace.” But for Palestinians, interim arrangements are potentially very dangerous, because the post-Oslo experience, and indeed 50 years of occupation, demonstrate that what is often assumed to be temporary can become disturbingly permanent given their lack of leverage over Israel and, more to the point, Israeli politicians’ accountability to a nationalistic Jewish public. Still, a sufficiently broad-ranging interim agreement could be acceptable to Palestinians under the right circumstances, with the clear understanding that a conditional accord means a conditional peace, and that the “end of conflict and end of claims” requires a full final status accord that inevitably will involve the creation of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state. As long as that goal remains generally accepted and viable, an interim arrangement is conceivable. But even that is extremely ambitious under the current circumstances.

The Trump administration is also reportedly keen on the “outside in” approach, which imagines that greater engagement with Israel by Gulf Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, largely inspired by mutual opposition to Iran’s regional agenda, can help to generate progress between Israel and the Palestinians. The idea is that a strategic relationship and normalization with Arab countries will be a major new incentive for Israel, and that the Palestinians can simultaneously get political cover, diplomatic support, and crucial economic aid from the Gulf countries, prompting both to make the necessary concessions to move forward. However, at present, this prospect is mired in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of which must come first. The Gulf Arab countries have a real strategic interest in a broader partnership with Israel, but their domestic politics and sincerely held values severely limit how much further they can go without seeing real progress on advancing Palestinian rights. And, for Israel, any concessions to Palestinians intended to bring about greater strategic cooperation with Arab countries are equally unlikely to come on spec.

Trump could, just conceivably, move this ball forward by making the rolling back of Iran’s expanded regional influence in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and even parts of Iraq a major American priority; he could be seen as succeeding in changing the regional equation, and linking all that to Gulf Arab cooperation on the peace process. It’s a very long shot indeed, but it’s not impossible. A major American effort to roll back Iran’s hegemony in the Middle East could be sufficient inducement to get Arab buy-in to a new, and much more open, strategic relationship with Israel that also helps to stabilize, if not fully resolve, the Palestinian issue.

All three factors—economic initiatives in the West Bank, the prospect of an interim agreement that benefits both sides and does not foreclose a two-state future, and the development of a new Arab-Israeli strategic entente cordiale against Iran—could combine to produce a virtuous circle of progress. Indeed, any two of those could produce a significant benefit. But the obstacles are vast and prospects remote.

Which brings us back to the looming likely hangover. The party was definitely bracing—a real tonic for the Palestinian leadership, and especially for Abbas. But the walk home may be brutal. The coming months will leave Palestinians and others on the ground asking what has, or can be, achieved to make their lives better and, above all, bring them closer to independence. For all the good will from Trump, the resuscitation of the Palestinian issue on the American and international agenda, and the clear political benefits for Abbas and his allies among the Palestinians and in the region, the only paths forward are narrow, rocky, and exceptionally steep.