Abbas’s Unmerited Optimism

The Palestinian president’s overtures toward a renewed peace, with the help of Trump, mask a darker reality back home.

By Dalia Hatuqa

Tagged Donald TrumpForeign PolicyMiddle EastPalestine

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced that he is—once again—ready to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of renewed Middle East peace efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump is expected in Israel later this month and, although there has been no official announcement so far that he would also meet Abbas in the West Bank, the Palestinian president said on Tuesday, “we are look forward to [Trump’s] visit soon to Bethlehem.”

Abbas’s renewed call to meet with Netanyahu comes just days after returning to Ramallah from Washington, D.C., where Trump hosted him at the White House. At first glance, the meeting between the two could be perceived as a net positive for Palestinians. At the White House, flanked by the Palestinian and American flags, the two leaders exchanged words of praise. Trump spoke fondly of the decades-old Declaration of Principles that Abbas was signatory to, while Abbas nodded and smiled. Addressing Trump, he spoke of the U.S. President’s “stewardship” and “great negotiating ability” that, he believed, could somehow guide the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table and, eventually, “get this done,” as Trump put it.

Yet Trump did not once even mention Palestinian statehood—he merely spoke of the vague notion of “peace,” as a somehow independently attainable goal. The conflict is 70 years old, and the Principles that Trump referenced were inked some two decades ago now, with little to show. The Oslo Accords have also been declared dead by Israel on several occasions; many of its tenets are not abided by today. (For instance, Israeli forces are found regularly in Area A of the West Bank, which, according to the Accords, should be under sole Palestinian control.) It also remains that Trump is vocally pro-Israel and has surrounded himself with like-minded advisers. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, both have deep connections with the Israeli settler movement.

Most notable, however, is the context in which the recent meeting with Trump took place: a troubling and critical political moment for Abbas domestically. This year, Palestinians will commemorate 50 years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Abbas, meanwhile, is facing a crisis of legitimacy stemming from the fact that he’s years past his mandate (Abbas was elected in 2005 for a 4-year term) and, according to Palestinians, he has little to show for it. He has seen his popularity dwindle as his Fatah party continues to be intransigent about a potential reconciliation with Hamas.

Most Palestinians view the schism between Hamas and Fatah as a blow to their national struggle to end the Israeli occupation and achieve statehood. Abbas, however, believes that his latest measures against Gaza will push Hamas to relinquish power or be toppled. Doing so is his top priority. He recently ordered that the salaries of civil servants employed by the PA in Gaza be cut, and has ceased payments of the Strip’s electricity bills to Israel, in order to exert pressure on Hamas. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah was unequivocal about the PA’s motives: “There’s a golden chance to regain unity of our people. Hamas should relinquish control of Gaza.” There have been dozens of attempts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, all of which have failed. Abbas had previously frozen the budget allotments for factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—the umbrella organization that comprises most Palestinian political parties—that were given out by the Palestinian National Fund, the PLO’s treasury, after Israel claimed the money was being used for “terrorism.” That has raised the ire of political parties like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)—as have the cuts he made in funding to Gaza, actions that have cost him dearly in public support.

Yet Abbas is feeling the pressure from all sides. Recently, several Republican senators wrote to Trump asking him to compel Abbas into ceasing payments to assist the families of the thousands of security detainees languishing in Israeli prisons. For Palestinians, the prisoner issue is a hugely sensitive one, with nearly every family having at least one member imprisoned: Since 1967, 40 percent of the adult male population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (roughly 800,000 people) have been detained in some way by Israeli forces.

When Abbas left for his visit to the United States, some 1,000 Palestinian detainees were on a hunger strike, demanding more humane conditions in Israeli prisons. In solidarity, Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been holding marches, sit-ins, and other events, even launching a social media campaign showing normal people, along with various celebrities, drinking salt water (prisoners on a hunger strike only allow themselves salt water for subsistence). The strong support for those incarcerated in Israel contrasts starkly with the apathy that Palestinians have shown for Abbas’s trip—or his seeming attempts to resuscitate the moribund peace process.

The prisoner issue has also thrust Marwan Barghouti, a popular Fatah leader serving several life sentences in an Israeli prison since 2004, back into the limelight. The member of parliament was convicted by Israel on murder charges for his role in the second Intifada, which erupted in 2000. He is currently one of those leading the hunger strike, and in many polls over recent years, Barghouti has consistently been named as the most popular choice to one day succeed the 82-year-old Palestinian president. Last week, Barghouti issued a statement—through his wife—from solitary confinement, in an attempt to boost the hunger strikers’ morale. In Ramallah, pictures of him in his brown prison uniform were hung over sit-in tents, outside of shops, and on the walls of buildings already peppered with an array of similarly political posters. Aware of Barghouti’s popularity, Abbas has never quite criticized him openly, but he has attempted to sideline him in subtle ways, such as picking another Fatah official—Mohammad al-Aloul—as his first-ever deputy in Fatah.

In this context, the recent invitation to the White House came as a sigh of relief to the Abbas camp, as the Palestinian issue had retreated into the background during the last couple of years of the Obama Administration. There were fears that Trump would also largely ignore Abbas and sidestep the conflict altogether to focus on Iran, Syria, and other regional files. The meeting was undoubtedly a political lifeline for Abbas, particularly since it likely ingratiated him to pro-American Arab leaders like Egypt’s General Sisi, but, on the ground, it has done nothing to bolster his image among Palestinians. If anything, it may even backfire—especially if Trump goes ahead with plans to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Apart from some niceties exchanged with Trump, and a lavish reception at an upscale hotel, Abbas came away from his visit to D.C. having made no substantial gains. In fact, Trump has made it clear, through ambiguous statements, and the appointment of Kushner and Friedman, that he supports continued settlement expansion. Although the White House has since said it stood by the sentiment, perhaps most telling of all was the deletion of a tweet posted on Trump’s account calling it “an honor” to have met Abbas. Yet it is the indifference to his D.C. trip at home that should likely have him the most concerned.

Read more about Donald TrumpForeign PolicyMiddle EastPalestine

Dalia Hatuqa is an independent journalist based in Washington, D.C. and the West Bank. She has been published in The Economist, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, and elsewhere, and her radio work and commentary have aired on NPR, PRI's The World, the BBC, and Monocle 24.

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