USA Foreign Policy First Look

Trump and Abbas hopeful, but little to show from first meeting

The US president believes an Israeli-Palestinian deal can be reached, but he and Abbas moved the needle little toward that goal on Wednesday. 

President Trump shakes hands with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas after their statements in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, May 3, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP
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Caption
  • Karin Laub
    Associated Press

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said his first meeting with President Trump left him hopeful, but he did not appear to have come away with any achievements that move the needle on Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Mr. Abbas said he believes the Trump administration can play an important role as a mediator, and the US president indeed restated his ambition to facilitate the deal that has eluded negotiators for over two decades.

But he also said outsiders cannot impose terms on the parties – which some see as a coded warning that there are limits to the US willingness to invest political capital. Some peace proponents on both sides have concluded that only massive international, regional or American pressure or enticements might break the impasse.

Abbas also does not appear to have secured US backing for pressure on Israel to end settlement construction in the lands the Palestinians claim for a future state – a major goal for the embattled Palestinian leader.

Still, the very fact that the meeting was held was an improvement for Abbas over the early weeks of the Trump administration, when the Palestinians felt ignored and frozen out. And Mr. Trump does appear to be stalling on his stated intention to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which the Palestinians fervently oppose.

Trump struck an optimistic note Wednesday, saying he believes an Israeli-Palestinian deal can be reached. He did not explain what type of solution he envisions.

"What is needed is to bring the two parties together, to bring them closer and then to facilitate things between them," he told reporters late Wednesday, after his White House meeting.

The Palestinians want to set up a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Abbas reiterated the demand as he stood next to Trump at the White House.

However, there have been no serious negotiations since gaps widened with the 2009 election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister. Mr. Netanyahu rejects the 1967 frontier as a baseline for border talks and rules out a partition of Jerusalem where Palestinians hope to establish a capital. The Netanyahu government, like those before it, have expanded settlements on war-won lands, despite US appeals to curb construction.

Despite the lack of specifics, Abbas described his meeting with Trump as positive and said that "we build hopes on it."

"So far, we didn't talk about a mechanism, but the contacts between us and the Americans began and will continue," he said.

Abbas said he is ready to meet with Netanyahu, and suggested the Israeli leader is avoiding such talks.

"We had planned to meet in Moscow, but he didn't show up," Abbas said, referring to Russian efforts several months ago to set up such a meeting.

Netanyahu has said he is willing to meet with Abbas. In the past, Abbas balked at the idea of such a summit, saying it would be pointless without general agreement on the framework of negotiations and a significant curb in settlement construction. Abbas did not explain his apparent shift in position.

On Thursday, Netanyahu said he looks forward to discussing with Trump the "best ways to advance peace." Trump is reportedly visiting Israel at the end of the month, although no official announcement has been made.

He said Abbas's comments Wednesday that Palestinians are cultivating a culture of peace "are unfortunately not true," pointing to Palestinian schools named after militants who killed Israelis. "But I hope that it's possible to achieve a change and to pursue a genuine peace. This is something Israel is always ready for, Netanyahu said.

US officials said ahead of the meeting that Trump would press Abbas to end payments to families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails. Three Republican senators urged a halt to such payments in a letter to Trump that reflected widespread opinion in Congress.

A senior US official said Tuesday that the issue of payments had been raised in preliminary talks with the Palestinians in Washington. Abbas has said the issue was not raised in his talks with Trump. However, officials close to the talks said it would be addressed in future meetings.

Abbas' positive portrayal of the meeting with Trump may not be enough for a skeptical public at home. Many Palestinians have become disillusioned with Abbas' strategy, after two decades of intermittent US-led negotiations ended in failure while Israeli settlements keep expanding.

In the West Bank, the main focus appears to be a hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, now in its 18th day.

At the time of the Abbas-Trump meeting, several thousand Palestinians attended a solidarity rally for the prisoners, with speakers calling for a new campaign of civil disobedience against Israeli rule.

The hunger strike is led by imprisoned uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, widely seen as the most popular choice to succeed the 82-year-old Abbas one day. Mr. Barghouti, in prison since 2002, is serving five life terms after an Israeli court convicted him of directing attacks that killed five people during a Palestinian uprising against Israel.

The turnout at the rally "reflects the people's support for the prisoners at a time when the Palestinian leadership failed in everything," said Sharif Suleiman, a 32-year-old project manager who attended the gathering. "They failed in negotiations, in building institutions and in reforms."

Abbas also faces fierce opposition from his main political rival, the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized Gaza from him in a 2007 takeover. Hamas has dismissed Abbas' strategy of negotiations as a waste of time and said he does not represent the Palestinians.

After a decade of failed reconciliation attempts, Abbas recently adopted a tougher stance toward Hamas, saying he would use financial pressure to force the militants to cede ground.

His West Bank-based autonomy government announced this week that it will stop paying for electricity Israel sends to power-starved Gaza – about $11 million a month.

Hamas has said it would not bow to pressure from Abbas.

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