During a confusing and unsettling time, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas came to Washington to meet with US President Donald Trump.
As has been the case with most issues, Trump has been remarkably unpredictable when addressing the Middle East. During his campaign for the White House, not only did his party's platform drop any mention of a "two state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he personally condemned President Obama for abandoning Israel at the United Nations and promised to be "the most pro-Israel President ever". He also pledged to immediately move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to never pressure Israel to stop settlement expansion. After winning the presidency, Trump appointed a trio of his closest advisers: David Friedman, a hardliner with deep ties to the West Bank settler movement, Jason Greenblatt, and son-in-law Jared Kushner as his envoys to address the conflicted region.
More recently, Trump has been sending other, somewhat different signals. For example, during and following his love fest visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and after Greenblatt and Kushner returned from their initial forays to the region, the White House began to sing what appeared to be another tune. The President now speaks confidently of his ambition to produce a "great deal" that would bring peace to the region. No details are offered, but as has been the case with so many other Trump pledges, we are told, in effect, to trust him that "it will happen" and "it'll be great".
While the elements of his plan have not been spelled out, it appears to involve restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks coupled with an effort to achieve some degree of regional cooperation between Israel and the US's Arab allies.
Trump's bold and brash confidence, his apparent change of tone, and his volatile personality have placed Palestinian leaders in a bind. They are on the ropes and desperately need the US to support them, both politically and financially. They may be wary or unclear about this President's views and those of his associates, but given their vulnerability, they fear alienating him. Facing these confounding realities, Abbas has attempted make the best of a difficult situation by appearing to take a page from Trump's own playbook—playing up to his ego by expressing confidence in his abilities and calling his presidency a "historic opportunity" to make peace a reality.
But the Palestinian dilemma is real. In the first place, Trump's refusal to commit to a Palestinian state and his lack of clarity creates a problem, since Palestinians do not know what is being asked of them or what they are being offered. And here, the signs are none too promising.
Arab leaders have, once again, reaffirmed their commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative, which establishes the goal of normalized ties with Israel only after Israel withdraws from the 1967 occupied territories and negotiates an equitable solution to the refugee issue. But the Israelis have adamantly refused to consider the essential terms of the API.
The talk in Washington (and Israel) is that Trump will attempt to square this circle by proposing two parallel tracks: one, involving Israeli-Palestinian talks with no preconditions, and another, bringing Israel and the Arab States together to discuss regional cooperation.
If this is, indeed, to be the process, it sets up a dangerous trap for both the Palestinians and the Arab States. The US and Israel may want the appearance of a "peace process" to provide a cover for efforts to create Israel-Arab cooperation to fight extremism and Iran. But the danger for Palestinians is clear. They've been down this road before—an endless process with no outcome. The danger for Arabs is also clear. Even the appearance of normalized ties with Israel, at the expense of the Palestinians, would only serve to inflame extremists, while at the same time producing a propaganda boon for the Iranians.
Since both the Palestinians and the Arabs are well aware of these dangers, a proposal that, in effect, turns the API on its head, is a non-starter.
Meanwhile, Washington's various and assorted think-tanks, now populated by an array of former and failed US Middle East negotiators, have been busily grinding out advice for the Trump Administration making it clear that they've learned very little from their experiences. They are still proposing limited improvements in the "quality of life" for Palestinians and putting the onus on the PA to drop their "unrealistic demands" regarding settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees, all the while pretending that Arab States can walk over the Palestinians on their way to establishing ties with Israel in order to create a united front against Iran and extremism. None of this has worked in the past, nor will it work today.
For its part, Israel, despite some mild resistance from the Administration regarding its settlement policy, has continued on its merry way announcing massive new construction projects in the West Band and Jerusalem, coupled with continued demolition of Palestinian homes and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian bedouin communities to make way for still more settlement expansion.
It's clear that if Trump is at all serious about reining in Israeli behaviors (and there is no evidence that he is), he will have to move from mild admonitions to cracking the whip. But this will not happen since Congress still has a critical role to play in tempering whatever any President may want to do.
Congress is pushing hard to punish any and all US or international efforts that oppose Israeli settlement expansion. They have urged the President to demand that the PA withhold funds paid to the families of prisoners, or face a cut in US financial support. And they are threatening punitive cuts to the United Nations and other agencies that oppose the occupation or endorse Palestinian demands—thereby threatening the few gains won by the Palestinian diplomatic initiative.
Those who think that the President can control Congress need only look at his inability to have his agenda pass Congressional muster. Any push to get tough with the Israelis will be greeted by a Congressional coalition that will block any such effort.
So while I understand, Abbas' need to not alienate the US President, I am neither confident or optimistic that we will see any real movement toward a just peace.
Decades ago, when I was just beginning my work, I learned a lesson from a mentor, Ibrahim Abu Lughod. He taught me not to pay attention to the ebbs and flows of the daily news. To do so, he warned created unwise optimism or unwarranted despair. Instead, he advised me to focus on the deep currents that defined the political landscape. These do not point in a promising direction.