First published in the Arab Weekly on Sunday 14/5/2017
London – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas finally had his day at the Trump White House.
The US president, standing in front of the Palestinian flag at their news conference on May 3, lauded Abbas for his role as signatory to the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel, his commitment to fighting “terrorism” and for security cooperation with Israel. Trump described how the two sides worked “unbelievably well together… They work together beautifully.”
Trump urged the Palestinian president to work against incitement and reiterated that a peace agreement could not be imposed on the Israelis and Palestinians but that the United States would “do whatever is necessary” to help the two sides reach such an agreement.
Trump held back on publicly demanding the Palestinian Authority end payments to families of prisoners or those killed during attacks on Israelis, something Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had pushed for prior to the meeting.
Abbas cited the Arab peace initiative, which calls for two states with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state and a fair solution for the refugee issue. The Palestinian president praised Trump’s “courageous stewardship” and “great negotiating ability.”
Trump tweeted about the meeting, saying: “It was a great honour to welcome President Abbas to the White House today. We’re hoping for a great agreement between the Palestinians and Israel that allows both peoples to live in safety and in peace.” The tweet was later inexplicably removed.
Reaction to the meeting was mixed. A headline in the pro-Hamas website Al-Resaleh read: “Abbas applauds himself alone in Washington” and characterised the situation as Abbas “alone in the wrestling ring” with Trump and completely powerless.
The Jerusalem daily Al-Quds signalled approval of the meeting with the headline: “Trump: I welcome President Abbas in the White House as a peacemaker.” While Al-Ayyam, a news site sympathetic to the Palestinian Authority, said the compromise Abbas was offering Trump was in “Israel’s interest” but that the extreme Israeli right-wing would reject it anyway.
Nasser Laham, editor-in-chief of Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency, wrote that Abbas did not take anything new to the White House in terms of demands and warned that any kind of “honeymoon” between Trump and the Arab world would be over quickly if the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
Writing on the web site of Al Jazeera, Palestinian lawyer and analyst Diana Buttu said the Trump-Abbas meeting was, for Palestinians, as expected “useless.” She characterised the emphasis on “process” as a perusal of “the same failed strategy pursued by three US presidents, spanning six administrations and 24 years.”
Hani al-Masri, director general of Masarat, a Palestinian organisation focused on formulating strategic policies and studies, acknowledged that by meeting Abbas and calling him “president,” Trump endowed legitimacy on Abbas, which may counter what seems to be an attempt to regionalise the Palestinian issue.
Masri noted that, in his address, Abbas failed to mention the daily struggles of the Palestinians and the impact of the continued settlements, home demolitions, evictions and the prisoner hunger strike. Masri warned that focusing again on the role of the United States, important though it is, ignores to some extent the changing voting pattern of some key countries as was seen in a recent UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem.
Trump is planning to visit the Holy Land, possibly emphasising his commitment to securing the ultimate deal. But he has yet to provide a foundation for this deal that would assure Palestinians it would be based on international law or meet the minimum requirements for justice that they expect.
While talk of the peace process kicks into life once again, Israel appears to continue breathing a sigh of relief that there is nothing to fear from the Trump administration. On the contrary, it will feel emboldened to build and expand while the Palestinians once again pin their hopes on others.