The Palestinian leadership is expressing growing concern over the possibility of renewing negotiations with Israel and “the deal” that President Trump is planning for both sides. Senior Palestinian Authority officials confirm that since Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ May 3, 2017, meeting at the White House with President Trump and until today, including the meeting between Abbas and the American president in Bethlehem on May 23, Abbas has not heard Trump utter the words “Palestinian state.”
Nor were these words said by emissaries Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, who met with Abbas at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah on June 21, 2017. The message that Kushner brought to Abbas from Trump was that he is “committed to a serious peace deal.” However, during all his conversations with Trump and his emissaries, Abbas emphasized that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines with east Jerusalem as its capital.
The Americans listened politely and did not respond.
A Tense and Angry Meeting, Say Arab Sources
According to a June 23, 2017, report in the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, the meeting between Mahmoud Abbas and emissaries Kushner and Greenblatt was “tense and angry.” The pair did not raise final status issues at all and focused on the demand that the Palestinian Authority stop its incitement of the Palestinian people and payment of salaries to families of prisoners and “martyrs.”
Abbas rejected the demand outright and agreed only to renew the activity of the American-Israeli-Palestinian tripartite committee to discuss the issue of incitement. According to the newspaper Al-Hayat on June 23, 2017, senior Palestinian officials said that Jared Kushner had hinted to Mahmoud Abbas that President Trump would decide whether he would continue his peace initiative only after receiving his report on the results of the contacts with the Palestinian Authority.
Kushner protested to Abbas that he had not condemned the murder of Israeli border policewoman Hadas Malka in the June 16, 2017, attack at the Damascus Gate, as well as his refusal to meet with David Friedman, the new American ambassador to Israel.
Abbas did not hide these details from the PLO or the Fatah Central Committee, and he understands well that he has a serious problem here. It is no coincidence that Trump and his emissaries have already studied the material and the history of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians from the Oslo Accords until today.
Abbas understands that he must prepare for the possibility of a confrontation with Trump as soon as both sides are presented with the outline of the “deal” he foresees as a solution to the conflict. If that “deal” does not include an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 lines with east Jerusalem as its capital, it will lead to the breaking off of contacts. From Abbas’ point of view, statehood and east Jerusalem are Palestinian “red lines” that he is unwilling and unable to surrender. He states these points to senior Fatah officials, and repeats them like a broken record to all senior American officials so they cannot come to him later, claiming that the comments were not made clearly.
Abbas has also not heard from President Trump or his envoys that Israel will freeze its settlement construction once negotiations are resumed. He agreed to give up all the preconditions he had demanded in the past during President Barack Obama’s days in order to resume negotiations. However, the Trump administration has not promised him in any way that Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank and construction in east Jerusalem will cease altogether once negotiations are resumed. It appears that Trump understands that the right-wing government in Israel will collapse if presented with such a demand, and that will lead to elections. This option, therefore, does not currently exist on the agenda.
On the issue of “the Palestinian state,” Abbas fears that the “deal” that Trump speaks about is an expanded autonomy in the West Bank gift-wrapped with a presidential regime, government, parliament, embassies around the world, and the full status of a UN state. But in practice, the overall security responsibility in the West Bank will be in the hands of Israel, including controlling the border crossings and airspace.
Israel would continue to control security in east Jerusalem and the Temple Mount with special arrangements allowing the Palestinians to place symbols of sovereignty in the eastern part of the city. The Palestinian Authority believes that Trump will not mind if the Palestinians would call this autonomy “Palestine,” but the security arrangements of this plan will ensure that Israel will control the area in terms of security. The large settlement blocs will be brought under full Israeli sovereignty in a territory swap.
Abbas and senior Palestinian Authority officials also have not heard Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say the words “Palestinian state.” On the contrary, Netanyahu made it clear that he is willing to give the Palestinians a “state minus” and made it clear that that security control along the Jordan River will remain in the hands of Israel, as well as full Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem.
The political contacts made between the Trump administration and the Palestinian Authority and Israel are supposed to get new momentum after the Eid al-Fitr Muslim holiday. Senior teams with five people from each side are scheduled to go to Washington for separate discussions. The American administration is still formulating the “deal,” but there is no sign so far that the “deal” includes the establishment of an independent “Palestinian state” whose capital is east Jerusalem.
Senior officials in Fatah say in private conversations that Mahmoud Abbas may still regret that he rejected the deal proposed by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, because it now seems that what President Trump is going to offer him is much less than what Olmert offered.
The pressure on the Palestinian Authority leadership is great. Abbas is afraid of betrayal by the “moderate” Arab states on the Palestinian issue. There are signs that they are ready to begin the normalization process with Israel before the Palestinian issue is solved, and after the Riyadh conference attended by President Trump on May 20, 2017, there is a feeling among the Palestinians that Trump can recruit the Arab countries for almost any mission.
There is no doubt that President Trump is trying to square the circle and find a creative solution that both sides will find difficult to reject. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority still don’t know what he is planning, but it appears the Palestinian side is much more worried than the Israeli side. It appears that the Palestinians who crave to hear the words “Palestinian state” will need to wait at least several more weeks in order to understand the essence of the “deal” formulated by President Trump. In the meantime, they are very worried and probably with good reason.