Let’s make a deal: Trump and the Palestinians

What many hoped would be one of the most important stories of the week was quickly superseded by the rangling over healthcare policy. The meeting between President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and President Donald J. Trump of the United States had been a dominant story in the Arab world, though less so here in the United States. In anticipation of the historic meeting, I took the opportunity to listen to a forum organized by the Washington Institute, which included 4 experts on the Israeli-Palestinain conflict. The panel consisted of Ghaith al-Omari, Ehud Yaari, David Makovsky and Dennis Ross.

The speakers agreed that President Abbas is in a very difficult political position. Yaari laid out the particulars: Abbas has waining political support, and questionable will as relates to the peace process; Abbas has lost control of key parts of the Palestinian coalition, including the West Bank and the refugee camps; former armed groups loyal to Fatah are beginning to challenge the predominance of the Palestinian Authority security forces; and it is more likely than not that Abbas will be succeeded by a coalation as opposed to an individual successor.

I was very interested to hear of Abbas’ troubles with armed Fatah militias. Yaari estimated that these groups now possess the same number of guns as the official Palestinian Authority Security Forces. al-Omari made reference to the fact that Abbas is being challenged by Marwan Barghouti, who is leading the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. It appears that all of these problems originate from Abbas alienating key constituencies in his quest to maintain political control of Fatah.

But President Abbas is not the only one who will have difficulty delivering on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yaari made it clear that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu does not have the political support requried to make a deal, and Ross believes that the psychological and political separation between the Palesinians and the Israelis is worse now than it has been in the past. All in all, the experts are skeptical as to the ability of the United States to broker a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians at this time.

The panel agreed that both Abbas and Netanyahu must show both the will and the political ability to deliver on SOMETHING. That something for Netanyahu is obviously the issue of settlements. The “ask” for Abbas is the termination of the martyr funds, which make payments to families of Palestinians who kill Israelis. If Netanyahu can’t control the settlements, and Abbas can’t cut off the martyr funds, then it is naive to think that there will be any real movement towards a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The expectation for a peace agreement is low on both sides. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu have yet been able to show that they have the political support necessary to make such commitments, much less move on them. If Abbas’ grip on power is so tenuous, why would the Israelis or the United States invest time and money on a deal that would be scuttled the moment Abbas is supplanted by a new governing coalition in Palestine? And if Netanyahu lacks the political support to put an end to illegal settlements, how will he ever convince the Israeli government to return to the 1967 borders, and turn over East Jerusalem to the Palestinians?

President Trump is set to visit Saudi Arabia later this month, followed by a visit to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Vatican. Trump will meet with both Netanyahu and Abbas during his visit. No word on whether or not all three will sit down together. I hope the US media gives more coverage to the upcoming meeting than they did the most recent meeting in Washington, and I hope that President Trump’s optimism can break through the low expectations that have been set for a lasting peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. The deal of a lifetime hangs in the balance.

If you would like to listen to the forum, it is available on the Washington Institute’s podcast. The name of the Podcast is Near East PolicyCast, and the episode is entitled “The Abbas-Trump Visit” dated May 1, 2017. I highly recommend that you subscribe to the Podcast if you have an interest in Middle East policy.