On December 6, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and eventually move the American embassy there, breaking with nearly 70 years of U.S. policy. The announcement has put Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a tough position. Abbas was already walking a political tightrope: he is in the middle of a delicate reconciliation process with his rivals in Hamas, and he faces a public deeply skeptical of his leadership and of the United States’ role in the peace process.
To appease ordinary Palestinians and to fend off attacks from his competitors, he responded harshly to Trump’s announcement, and he will soon take a harder line toward the peace process and a softer line toward Hamas than he otherwise would have. For Abbas and for the Palestinian Authority (PA), that is bad news.
Diplomats and lawyers will argue over whether Trump’s announcement prejudices the status of the Holy City in a final peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. (Trump’s speech left open the United States’ position regarding what he called the “specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.”) But regardless of the answer, Abbas’ job is about to become much harder.
For two reasons, the Palestinian president had little choice but to strongly condemn the change in U.S. policy. The first relates to his domestic standing. No Palestinian leader—especially one as weak as Abbas is today—would be able to swim against the tide of protest that will soon rise in response to Trump’s announcement. Nor can Abbas afford to be seen as taking a softer line against the announcement than Hamas and the other players in the region—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, to name a few—that have already condemned the change.
The second constraint on Abbas revolves around the peace process. Abbas will worry that Trump’s announcement portends the United States’ full adoption of the Israeli
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