The Palestinian Authority believes US President Donald Trump has not abandoned long-held policies in Washington regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a senior Palestinian official reportedly slated to be the next envoy to the US said Monday.
Husam Zomlot, a senior political adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Trump administration had yet to reach out to the PA. But despite the apparent cold shoulder, Ramallah is not taking for granted that Washington will shift under Trump to align with the Israeli right wing, as many have predicted, Zomlot said.
“Our expectation is that the long-held US policies with regards to the illegality of the settlements, the status of Jerusalem and with regards to the contours of the solution will remain,” said Zomlot.
“We did not hear any change of these long-held US policies up until today. Until we hear otherwise, this will be our working assumption,” he added.
During the first week of Trump’s presidency, Israel approved the construction of 2,500 new homes to be built in West Bank settlements, as well as the construction of 566 housing units in East Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed more of the same was to come.
The US has yet to respond to the announcements and when asked, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered only that Trump would discuss the matter with Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visits in February.
Zomlot said he does not believe the silence of the Trump administration is a tacit approval for settlement construction.
“The Trump administration is not yet fully formed,” he said, pointing out that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to take office.
“It’s premature to judge. We hope the Israeli government’s over-excitement will soon be proven unfounded,” he added.
Zomlot argued that the idea that Trump will allow unfettered Israeli settlement construction is an unfounded narrative being pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It is not the US administration that is acting at this point in time; it is the Netanyahu government that is acting, thinking that in this limbo [of the presidential transition] it could actually reshape US policy and recruit President Trump to abandon the two state solution, as [Israel] did,” he said.
Netanyahu recently said he was willing to give the Palestinians “not exactly a state with full authority, rather a state minus,” but did not elaborate further.
However, the Palestinians have argued that Netanyahu’s commitment to building settlements in the West Bank shows he is only playing lip-service to the two-state solution.
Trump’s appointment for ambassador to Israel David Friedman has expressed support for and funded construction in Israeli settlements, and has expressed doubt about the need for a two-state solution.
When asked whether this appointment was a signal from the Trump administration, Zomlot responded, “Ambassadors do not make national policies. They are the conveyors of national policies. They are not decision makers.”
But Zomlot conceded that there is “worry” within the PA.
“But we are not speculators here. We will only act based on information and direct engagement with the new administration,” he added.
It’s not clear when Zomlot, who for years has acted as a Palestinian representative in meeting with American officials, might replace Maen Areikat, the current ambassador to the US. Reports emerged in October that he had been tapped for the post, on the eve of a major Fatah congress.
Despite the lack of contact between Ramallah and Washington, Zomlot maintained the PA will “have contacts with the new administration once it is intact.”
“We expect to be invited to the White House and State Department once the new administration is fully operative. We have been a key partner of the US for decades and expect no change,” he said.
US could ‘disqualify itself’ as mediator
Zomlot pointed out that in the past Trump has said he was keen to make a peace deal, and that when the president appointed his son-in-law Jared Kusher to be his envoy to the region, he also expressed enthusiasm that Kushner could make peace.
In an interview aired Monday, Trump seemed to acknowledge for the first time that the Palestinian side’s claims would have to be dealt with, saying there were “two sides” to the issue of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Abbas has warned that the PA might revoke its recognition of Israel if the embassy is moved.
But given the signals that the Trump administration might not hew as closely to the idea of the two-state solution as past administrations, Zomlot warned the US would thus be de facto “disqualifying itself” from the job of mediator between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The US engagement since 1991, all of the agreements written and signed, are based on the two-state solution along 1967 lines,” he said.
Zomlot stressed that even if the US withdraws its support for a two-state solution, the PA will continue to pursue it, including by pursuing multilateral efforts in the international arena.
“[Would a US withdrawal] from the two-state solution mean it is over? No. It just means we need to look for a new strategy to achieve the same goal. And we believe international law and consensus, as reconfirmed in the recent UNSC Resolution 2334, multilateralism and reestablishing international political sponsorship towards finding a solution as manifested in the Paris peace conference two weeks ago, is the way forward,” he said.
The 70 countries who recently met in Paris as part of the French peace initiative reaffirmed that a two-state solution is the only one acceptable to the international community and called on both sides to act accordingly.
After the meeting in Paris, Abbas said he would meet in the near future with French President Francis Holland to see how to advance the initiative.
Israel has rejected the French initiative, arguing only bilateral negotiations will prove fruitful.
During a phone call with Netanyahu last week, Trump also said bilateral negotiations were the only way forward, according to a White House readout of the call.