Carlos Barria / REUTERS U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as they deliver a statement at the White House in Washington, May 2017. 

Trump and the Middle East Peace Process

Assessing His Meeting With Abbas

The atmospherics surrounding Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump could not have gone better for the Palestinian leader: there were warm words of praise and support, reiterations of Trump’s personal commitment to making peace, and vocal recognition of Abbas’ stance against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) security cooperation with Israel. Trump’s criticism of incitement to violence was delivered in clear yet non-confrontational terms, and was overshadowed by the prestige of Abbas’ private meeting with the president and a working lunch attended by the highest officials in the administration. Only recently consigned to the margins of regional priorities, the peace process once again seems high on the White House agenda.

The new momentum is exclusively the result of Trump’s clear personal commitment to the issue, as demonstrated by his repeated reference to the issue in numerous media interviews, his delegation of the process to his son-in-law Jared Kushner and U.S. Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and his raising it in conversations with various world leaders. Yet the Abbas-Trump meeting only represents the final scene of the opening act of the new U.S.-led drive for Middle East peace, preceded by White House meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Jordanian King Abdullah. Although a full strategy is yet to emerge, the readouts of these meetings indicate the broad contours of the immediate next steps in Washington’s approach. There will be two parallel tracks of U.S. engagement with each side of the Israel-Palestine conflict: pushing Israel to hold back on settlement activity, and pushing the PA to create a unified voice against incitement. This will be coupled with an effort to bring key Arab States—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other US allies—into a regional process that would create, as Trump called it, a “bigger canvas” for reaching peace. Eventually, these components will have to come together in a more comprehensive process, but each holds its own challenges. None is insurmountable, but they cannot be overcome without constant, active U.S. involvement.

POLITICAL OBSTACLES

While the two leaders and their delegations were holding discussions in Washington, news from the West Bank and Gaza was worrying. Predictably, Hamas was quick to announce that “no one authorized [Abbas] to speak for the Palestinian people.” In the meantime, a large group of Palestinians, gathered in Ramallah in solidarity with hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, listened to an impassioned letter from the strikers’ leader, Marwan Barghouti, read by his wife Fadwa. Barghouti called upon Palestinians to “launch the widest civil disobedience movement.” Although the call was directed against Israel, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the PA was the intended target. Among those addressing the crowd were senior Fatah leaders, whose statements were far from conciliatory. Under such circumstances, a “unified voice against incitement” will be hard to achieve. Even more difficult would be addressing the issue of PA payments to “martyr funds” and prisoners involved in terrorism—an issue that was not raised by Trump in the press conference but one that came up in the private meetings.

When Abbas goes back home to Ramallah, he will have to deal with these realities. But the 82-year-old leader will be handicapped by low popularity, with around two-thirds of the Palestinians believing that he should step down, low public confidence in the PA due to corruption and poor governance, and a succession dynamic that has been pushed off the front page but is not far from the minds of aspirants from his own Fatah movement. All of these developments are taking place in the shadow of an increasingly skeptical Palestinian public that has largely lost faith in diplomacy.

The meeting with Trump may have given Abbas a diplomatic boost, and promises of economic support and development will help his standing, but the task ahead would be difficult in the best of circumstances. Abbas, a temperamentally cautious leader, will find it hard to meet some of the hard demands that will arise in his discussions with American officials.

The meeting with Trump may have given Abbas a diplomatic boost, but the task ahead would be difficult in the best of circumstances.

In the meantime, U.S. negotiators are discovering that holding back on settlements poses political problems for Netanyahu. The vast majority of his governing coalition and a large segment of his Likud party are opposed to any restrictions on settlements. The Israeli president finds himself on the left flank of his cabinet—a position no one, including probably Netanyahu himself, would have imagined only a few years ago—and so constrained that he has recently been unable to publicly utter the words “two-state solution.” His status as the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in one consecutive term has also brought about a growing sense of Bibi fatigue, exacerbated by the uncertainty generated by a number of police investigations that may (or may not) result in indictments. There are no concrete challenges to his leadership at the moment, but in such a fraught atmosphere the politically risk-averse Netanyahu will not be eager to do anything to precipitate a political crisis in his coalition.

In response to Trump’s call for restraint on settlements, Israel presented initial ideas such as limiting new construction in built-up areas or areas adjacent to them. These might have sufficed as a first step, but Israel will likely be asked to do more as the process continues. Still, the weeks following the Trump-Netanyahu meeting saw the continuation of settlement activities, including the announcement of the first new settlement in decades in lieu of the evacuated Amona outpost in the West Bank. Although the United States has remained publicly silent about these developments (and has been disciplined about preventing any leaks of possible conversations with Israeli officials on the matter), these developments have rankled not only the Palestinians but also some key Arab states, such as Jordan.

The warm tone that marks Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump is a political asset, especially in contrast to the often tense relations he had with former President Barack Obama. But as the conversations with US officials proceed, he will inevitably find himself having to balance maintaining the relationship and responding to his domestic political challenges.

The Arab states are not as keen on getting involved in the peace process as U.S. and Israeli officials would like them to be, especially if that means publicly engaging with Israel and pressuring the Palestinians in the peace process. The emergence of Iran as a common threat to Israel and Arab Gulf states has led to covert, but commonly known, cooperation to counter this threat. Yet the Arab states currently have no incentive to make these relations public, let alone broaden them to include the peace process. The current diplomatic relations framework meets the requirements of their security and military realms without any domestic political price, and many of their officials believe that a peace process is a futile effort doomed to failure.

Many Arab leaders today regard the peace process as a U.S. priority, not their own. To get more involved, they first would want Washington to address their wider concerns in the region, namely a reversal of what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as US relinquishment of its regional leadership role under Obama. These leaders feel encouraged by the change of tone vis-à-vis Iran and by the April 7 missile strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces after his use of chemical weapons. Yet they still are uncertain whether this will translate into a sustained new US policy in the region, particularly with respect to Iran. Until these states become convinced that playing an active role in the peace process would help sustain US regional engagement, they are unlikely to offer much beyond words of encouragement.

IMPATIENCE IS A VIRTUE?

The Trump administration certainly has leverage in the peace process. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu is eager to say no to Trump and lose the benefits created by close association with him. But both are hesitant to do anything that would be too politically challenging. Instead, they are likely to do the absolute minimum required to meet Washington’s expectations. In such a dynamic, each is bound to take actions that the other side will see as signs of bad faith. Officials in the US will have to deal with the further complication of its other regional relationships.

But these challenges can be overcome. Addressing the crowd gathered in Washington to mark Israel’s 69th Independence Day, U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said, “The president is not a super-patient man.” How this impatience manifests itself will be key to the prospects of success in the peace process. If, faced with the inevitable procrastination and blame-shifting tactics both sides have grown accustomed to over decades of negotiations, Trump’s impatience leads to abandoning the issue in favor of focusing on myriad other international and regional problems, then this peace process will follow the path of those that preceded it.

If, on the other hand, Trump’s impatience leads to the imposition of a price for non-compliance, then it may become the key catalyst for success. But this will require constant tending of the process by U.S. officials and the expenditure of presidential time and political capital. It is too early in the Trump presidency to know how this will play out, but there will be a chance to further clarify the new approach when Trump visits Israel in late May. One thing is undeniable: the president’s approach and his own robust focus on the peace process have unexpectedly opened an opportunity.

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