If there is one conclusion to be drawn from last month’s visit of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House and US President Donald Trump’s planned visit to Israel and the PA later this month, it is that the fantasy beloved by some Israeli leaders that the Palestinian issue can be made to vanish from the global agenda is fading fast.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has for months been talking up the possibility of a regional agreement, and highlighting Arab leaders’ ostensible hatred of the Palestinians and of Abbas. He and some of his ministers have been intimating that Israel might even be able to cut deals with the Saudis without mentioning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at all.
But Trump, the darling of the Israeli government and the Settlers (Yesha) Council, has out-Obama’ed president Barack Obama by reinstating Abbas at the center of the diplomatic stage. The American administration has made it crystal clear that far from ignoring Abbas and the Palestinians, as some Israeli officials had hoped Trump would do, it will treat them with kid gloves.
Trump invited Abbas to visit, listened to the Palestinian delegation’s (fairly lengthy) diplomatic survey, was amazed at the extent of the IDF-PA security coordination, and apparently concluded that the Palestinians may not have been the only ones to blame for the failure of peace talks. He listened approvingly as Abbas, at their joint press conference, asserted that the PA is “raising our youth… on a culture of peace.” He praised Abbas for speaking out against terrorist groups. He hailed ongoing US partnerships with the Palestinians on regional security.
He deployed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to meet with the Palestinian team. He had already sent Jason Greenblatt, a religiously observant Jew who studied at a yeshiva in Gush Etzion, to visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. And now Trump is planning a visit to Bethlehem — and will meet Abbas again, for the second time in a month.
How ironic that it is Trump, not Barack (Hussein) Obama, who is revitalizing Abbas diplomatically. Now Trump wants to revive the negotiations and perhaps even hold a three-way summit. So Abbas has immediately been catapulted to the position of a significant political figure in Middle East — one who meets every other week with leaders of Arab countries in order to coordinate positions with them. Talk of a regional agreement has been forgotten; so, too, have pipe dreams about annexing parts or all of the territories.
Whatever happened to the program to annex Ma’ale Adumim, which Education Minister Naftali Bennett had promised would become government policy from the moment Trump was inaugurated? It is becoming evident that Netanyahu, too, is being careful to show Trump respect, and does not want to upset the White House too much, reportedly canceling a meeting this week on settler home approvals. After all, he wouldn’t want to get another of those letters from DC telling him, “You’re fired.”
A few words in defense of Israeli government ministers are in order. Their assessment that the Arab states are not in love with Abbas and the Palestinians is correct. While Cairo is the most obvious example of this, there are also some Gulf states, particularly the United Arab Emirates, that would prefer to see a different Palestinian leadership. But it is a long way from this to the Arabs abandoning the Palestinian cause.
The leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia want to see quiet on the Palestinian front, and as far as they are concerned the quickest way to get there is a peace process. Acts such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem or annexing territory would create unrest in the West Bank that could lead to support rallies and unrest in the Arab world. If the Israeli government wants to forge relationships with them that are not exclusively about security, it must pay the dowry by moving forward on the talks with the Palestinians.
It is into this equation that the new Abbas enters. The Mahmoud Abbas of 2017 sounds, acts and looks differently from the Abbas of 2008 to 2016. Obama is no longer there to constrain him by making a relentless public fuss about settlements, and his message to Trump was clear: He is willing to meet with Netanyahu and talk with the Israelis with no preconditions.
The Palestinian leader realizes that he needs to use different tools and behavior in the Trump era — not to act like a parent scolding an unruly (superpower) child, but like a leader who, in his conversations with Trump and his representatives, talks only about how ready and willing he is to do anything to assist the peace process. This talk is also accompanied by action, from the security coordination, to getting tough on Hamas in Gaza, to a certain decrease in incitement. None of this helps his domestic popularity, but it has certainly boosted his standing in Washington.
Yes — there has actually been a decrease in incitement, the topic that Israeli officials bring up again and again. Inflammatory speeches are still heard and statements brimming with hatred of Jews and Israelis are still made, but there are fewer of them in the media and even in Palestinian textbooks.
What about the security coordination? The “unbelievable” cooperation that Trump highlighted in his press conference with Abbas has been the case for some time. The PA is trying to thwart any and every cell that plans terror attacks, be it Hamas, Islamic State, or any other group. Its police force arrests terrorists and prevents attacks; in the past few weeks it has confiscated hundreds of illegal weapons, mostly manufactured in the territories.
The Israeli and American intelligence communities are well aware of this work; so too, now, is Trump. Netanyahu and his ministers are not too fond of talking about these activities by the PA — not because they underestimate them, but mostly because any expression of gratitude toward the Palestinian Authority will harm the support they get from their right-wing base. It could also damage the Palestinian security services themselves, which face allegations of collaboration the more this work is hailed by Israel (even though much of the Palestinian public has held this view of them for some time).
One of the most significant players effecting all this change under Abbas is PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. He initially seemed fairly weak, and with no political pretensions — a person whom Fatah could manage as it pleased. But Hamdallah has slowly been gaining status in the PA’s security and political institutions, as well as support among the Palestinian public. He gives orders to PA security chiefs, with whom he meets regularly, and receives updates about the security services’ every act, from the arrests of Hamas activists to the confiscation of weapons and the dispersal of demonstrations.
Just as important, Hamdallah is not seen as corrupt. Some compare him to former prime minister Salam Fayyad, and this is perhaps the greatest danger he faces — if he is too successful, as Fayyad was, Fatah’s high-ranking officials will try to bring him down. Hamdallah is also considered more cautious regarding the measures that the PA has been taking against Hamas in recent weeks, in what looks like a gradual disengagement of the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority from Gaza.
The Mahmoud Abbas of 2017 is also less hesitant about getting into internal Palestinian conflicts, even as his popularity continues to plummet. Fatah’s loss to Hamas this week in student elections at Bir Zeit University is just an example of that. Yet Abbas persists in his plans to disengage from Gaza. PA officials announced this week that they would stop collecting taxes from the residents of the Gaza Strip. In other words, only Hamas will be collecting taxes from the Gazans, and we can guess that support for Hamas will then decrease.
Abbas also announced the cessation of payments to Israel for Gaza’s electricity, thus causing trouble for both Israel and Hamas. Israel says it has no intention of paying for Gaza’s electricity, and it is not clear at the moment who, if anyone, will do so by the end of the month. The PA may finally agree to foot part of the bill so as to ensure the supply of electricity to critical installations such as hospitals, but one thing is clear: the suffering in Gaza will go on.
Abbas is planning other measures, such as stopping monthly salary payments to the members of Hamas’s parliament (surprisingly enough, they are still receiving salaries) and stopping salary payments to the prisoners in Gaza who were released as part of the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange.
Hamas is nervous. It has no Plan B at the moment. The Qataris have said that they have no intention of paying for the Gaza Strip’s electricity as long as there is no comprehensive reconciliation process between the PA and Hamas. The Gaza Strip is on the brink of an explosion even though Hamas does not want one.
There is also quite a bit of confusion within Hamas for political reasons. Ismail Haniyeh was elected head of its political wing, but he is moving farther away from making decisions concerning the Gaza Strip, of which Yahya Sinwar is in charge. Although Haniyeh, as head of Hamas’s political bureau, supposedly outranks Sinwar at present, it is not at all certain that he will be the one giving orders to the head of Hamas’s political bureau in Gaza.
Deepening PA-Hamas friction seems inevitable, which could presage trouble on the ground. It would also, however, bolster Abbas’s credibility — as part of the solution, not the problem — in the eyes of the Trump administration.