World Middle East

A US president hosts a Palestinian leader. Has anything changed? Maybe.

New thinking

Expectations are low for Trump's meeting with Mahmoud Abbas. Yet there is pressure on the Palestinian leader to offer something to help break the Middle East logjam. One reason: Gulf Arab states want to keep the dealmaker-in-chief interested in the region.

A Palestinian protester clashes with Israeli police during a demonstration in support of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, outside Jerusalem's Old city, April 29, 2017.
Ammar Awad/Reuters
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Caption

Donald Trump is not the first president to believe he can deliver a peace deal in the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After Jimmy Carter’s 1978 Camp David Accords came the Reagan Peace Plan. That was followed in 1991 by George H.W. Bush’s Madrid Conference – and on and on it has gone for decades, through Barack Obama’s failed stab at peace at the hands of former Secretary of State John Kerry.

Yet while virtually no one believes conditions are ripe for the master of “the art of the deal” to deliver quickly on what by now is the holy grail of American diplomacy, some experts with long experience in peace efforts say the potential for progress may be less dismal than meets the eye.

The key reason is the regional context – and specifically how Arab countries, in particular the Gulf states, may suddenly be seeing their renewed commitment to helping further Middle East peace as a way of accommodating a new president – and of keeping the US anchored to the region.

So when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas takes up Trump’s surprise invitation and visits the White House Wednesday, as much attention is likely to be paid to how the Arab states fit in the conversation as to the public commitments Mr. Abbas does or doesn’t make.

“The Sunni states want the US to be in the region” to put a brake on the ambitions of their archenemy, Shiite Iran, says Dennis Ross, a longtime Middle East diplomat who worked in five administrations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “They perceive President Trump’s interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and they may be using [it] to keep him in the region,” he says.

The corollary is that Trump can use the prospect of US engagement in the region “to keep the Arabs involved and contributing” to a re-launched peace process, Ambassador Ross says, primarily by deploying their influence with the Palestinians.

There are some signs the dynamic is already working, says Ross, now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He notes that Sunni Arab leaders, who of late had shown dwindling interest in Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian issue generally, quickly reversed course after Trump issued his White House invitation to the Palestinian leader.

“[Abbas’s] position in the region had really been weakened,” particularly with two key players, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Ross notes. “But both agreed to see him after Trump’s invitation,” he adds.

Pressure on Hamas

Some even see Abbas’s resurrected stature regionally and internationally as a factor in recent efforts by the militant Palestinian organization Hamas – rival to Abbas’s Fatah organization – to soften its image and present itself as a more widely palatable alternative to Fatah.

Hamas leaders chose the run-up to Abbas’s Washington visit to unveil a new set of principles that, while still claiming the right to armed struggle against Israel, downplay anti-Semitic rhetoric and accept the idea of a provisional Palestinian state as an interim step.

The document, which also calls for Hamas to develop closer ties to Egypt, was released not from the group’s power center in Gaza, which it controls, but through a series of public events in the Gulf state of Qatar – another US regional ally with renewed interest in the Palestinian issue.

Abbas remains unpopular in the West Bank, but his suddenly rising regional star poses a threat to Hamas.

Yet even with his burnished regional relevance in tow, Abbas will only count with his White House host if he demonstrates that he is ready to deliver, regional experts say – if not dramatically, at least in promising ways that tell the dealmaker-in-chief that Abbas is someone he can work with to bring about the ultimate deal.

The conventional wisdom both in Washington and in the region is that “there is no context for talks, for a grand deal,” say David Makovsky, who served as a senior adviser to Mr. Kerry’s peace initiative. “Ironically, the only person who doesn’t talk like that is the president of the United States. He believes in the deal.”

What Abbas could offer

The challenge for Abbas, Mr. Makovsky says, is that even with expectations for a “big deal” at rock bottom, pressure will mount for the Palestinian leader to come forth with some offer, to lay some cards on the table.

“If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not ripe for the home run, what’s the single?” says Makovsky, an aficionado of baseball analogies. “The administration is going to say, ‘What’s your step? We’re not only asking [something] of Israel,’” he adds, “‘so what’s the single?’”

Ross cites two things he believes Abbas could do to demonstrate his relevance to Trump and his readiness to act to get the peace process moving again.

Perhaps most important, Abbas could state a willingness to end the practice of paying the families of Palestinian “martyrs” who die in attacks on Israelis and of other Palestinians imprisoned by Israel for anti-Israeli violence.

Second, Abbas could acknowledge that “two national movements are competing for the same space, that two national identities [require] two states for two peoples,” he says. More than a restatement of support for the two-state solution, it would be an affirmation of Israeli rights that could lead the Israeli public to take a second look and perhaps break the stalemate.

Neither action would be easy for Abbas, Ross says, but he says they could demonstrate a willingness to shake things up to keep Trump interested. “These hard steps won’t produce the final deal,” he says. “But they can break the stalemate and restore the sense of possibility.”

Dramatic move by Trump?

If Trump hears enough encouraging words, speculation in Washington is that he could announce a dramatic step of his own, if not during the Abbas visit then shortly thereafter.

“Could Trump be going to Israel” late in May as part of his first trip to Europe as president? asks Makovsky, now at the Washington Institute. Might he announce he’s bringing Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu together for the first time since 2010?

Ross says such a flashy announcement would mean little absent the preliminary steps demonstrating that conditions on the ground have really changed.

“I can tell you, if you bring the two leaders together it’s a one-off. It doesn’t change anything,” he says. “What diplomacy has to do,” he adds, “you have to give the publics on each side a reason to take a second look,” a reason to believe “something is different this time.”

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