Palestinian officials were pleasantly surprised by the White House’s warm reception for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week, after worrying over the unpredictable nature of US President Donald Trump, a senior negotiator said Monday.
“There was a positive reaction because people did not know what to expect. It’s difficult to predict Mr. Trump. He was very warm, respectful, gave equal treatment to our president, like he’s given to other heads of state that he’s met,” said Nabil Shaath, a foreign affairs adviser to Abbas.
Abbas visited Trump at the White House on May 4, with the two leaders exchanging smiling pleasantries and high hopes for restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
According to Shaath, PA officials‘ optimism in the aftermath of the meeting wasn’t due to specific content discussed, or concrete details of how to move forward.
“People were not very much concerned with every word said or phrase mentioned. People were judging the general atmosphere, the music of the meeting,” he told The Times of Israel during an interview at the Grand Park Hotel in Ramallah.
“What was discussed in Washington was getting ready to start the negotiations,” he added.
He noted the key players in Trump’s administration took part in the luncheon with the Palestinian team, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Jared Kushner.
When asked if Abbas and Netanyahu can sit in a room together without a settlement freeze, Shaath said, “It will have to be discussed in the next round of negotiations [with the Americans], likely when the president comes here.”
Trump is slated to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories later this month and will look to push forward efforts to restart peace talks, according to officials.
Though Trump had initially worried many Palestinians for his lack of support for the two-state solution, seeming willingness to allow settlement building and plans to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, Shaath praised the US leader as someone whose stances could shift.
“President Trump is a very different character than Mr. Obama. He is tough and willing to voice out his position. He is also willing to change. He is a man who calculates,” Shaath said.
He also said Ramallah had little choice but to work with the president.
The US is “not just a global player, it’s a strategic ally of Israel and of other regional players. You cannot ignore the US. We have to try with the new president like we tried” with past presidents, Shaath said.
He added, though, that the Palestinians are still presenting their case to the “entire universe,” and haven’t given up on the promises of the internationally backed French Peace Initiative.
Netanyahu creating ‘precondition’ by raising payment to terrorists
During the meeting with Abbas, Trump raised the issue of payments by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is headed by Abbas, to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and to the families of terrorists, according to White House officials.
The payments have been a long-standing complaint by Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials in Jerusalem, who say they incentivize attacks.
Shaath said the issue of the payments should be something left to negotiations, and accused Netanyahu of raising the issue to prevent the newest round of negotiations from getting off the ground.
“Of all people, Mr. Netanyahu, who criticizes President Abbas for making preconditions about the settlements, then [goes and] puts a new precondition,” he said.
The PLO gives all Palestinian prisoners monthly payments, no matter the reason they are in jail, and also to families of so-called “martyrs”— a term used by the PLO to refer to anyone killed by an Israeli, whether the person was involved in attacking Israeli civilians, or killed unjustly.
Shaath was particularly angered by the fact that Netanayhu had painted all Palestinian prisoners “as criminals and terrorists,” arguing the vast majority include those with no blood on their hands or who had relatives killed in the conflict.
In an interview with Fox News, Netanyahu accused the PA of giving “Hundreds of millions of dollars annually to terrorists or families of terrorists.”
In 2016, the PLO’s total budget for payments to prisoners and families of “martyrs” was around three-hundred million dollars.
A recent report published by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli Defense Ministry agency responsible for administering civilian affairs in the West Bank and the crossings with Gaza, said that around one-third of the Palestinian prisoners are “directly responsible for the murder of Israelis.”
A spokesperson in the Prime Minister’s Office declined to respond to Shaath’s assertions.
In an interview last week with Israel Radio, Shaath called the demand to end the payments “insane.”
In a op-ed in the Washington Post published in April, Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas and the Palestinian negotiating team, and David Makovsky, a former senior adviser to the US special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, argued the PLO must change its payment policy, including showing the current US administration it is serious about making peace.
The “Palestinians argue that the bulk of these prisoners and ‘martyrs’ are political prisoners and innocent bystanders,” the two noted. They urged, therefore, that the PLO, controlled largely by Abbas, immediately cease payments in “clear-cut” cases of murder or attempted murder of Israelis.
When asked if the PLO could cease payments in “clear-cut” cases of murder or attempted murder, Shaath said that was something which could only be resolved in negotiations.
“If there are people who are involved in civilian killings, and it was really criminal, that could be an exception that could be looked into in a court accepted by the two peoples. All those imprisoned today are [a product] of the occupation. Ending that must be the fruit of peace,” he said.