Estranged from White House, Palestinian envoy looks for way out of ‘box’

Estranged from White House, Palestinian envoy looks for way out of ‘box’

Husam Zomlot is still working to shore up ties with America, despite finding himself unable to speak to the Trump administration for months

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to Washington, reviews papers in Washington, Friday, February 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to Washington, reviews papers in Washington, Friday, February 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A few miles down the road from Israel’s gated embassy, the Palestinian envoy to Washington sits in his office wrestling with a unique diplomatic dilemma: how to advance his people’s cause when relations with the United States are so distant that he hasn’t even spoken to the White House in months.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has written off US President Donald Trump, cursing him and declaring him an illegitimate broker for peace. Trump has reacted angrily, threatening to cut off all US aid and dismissing Palestinian claims that he blew up any semblance of impartiality by declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital.

The Americans and the Palestinians can’t even agree on the basic facts of the dispute, much less the path forward for talks and an eventual peace agreement with Israel. So what’s a diplomat to do?

“It’s not like I am not speaking to them. My phone is open,” Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador, said in an hour-long interview in his office, flanked by the Palestinian flag and portraits of Abbas and former leader Yasser Arafat.

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to Washington, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Washington, Friday, February 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

No one has called, he said. Not since December 6 — the day Trump’s Jerusalem declaration triggered an unraveling of trust, diplomacy and optimism about the long-awaited peace plan being crafted by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Nor has there been any substantial contact between the Palestinians and the Americans at the United Nations, according to officials from both sides. Even Tuesday, when Kushner and fellow White House envoy Jason Greenblatt traveled to New York to hear Abbas address the UN Security Council, no face-to-face interaction between the sides occurred.

By the time US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley gave her response, Abbas had left the room. No matter — Haley addressed him directly.

“Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk,” Haley said. “But we will not chase after you.”

The feeling is mutual.

American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, center, Jared Kushner, left, and Jason Greenblatt, listen as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Palestine, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Zomlot — who calls himself “the man in the eye of the storm” — said the lesson learned from recent months is the Palestinians long approached their task in the wrong order. They’d hoped US-led talks would yield a deal granting Palestine legitimacy in America and elsewhere. But now, he said his people must first “correct” their bilateral relationship with the United States, building trust in each other as partners in peace.

So Zomlot, a close Abbas confidant and PhD economist, spends his days at the Palestinians’ red-bricked delegation office along Georgetown’s Wisconsin Avenue, sipping thick Turkish coffee with members of Congress, academics, think-tank types and leaders of the Arab and Jewish communities, trying to establishing goodwill among the American people in hopes it will filter up to their leaders. He said he asks every lawmaker he meets the same question.

“Who are we? What is this office? Are we your peace partners? Your negotiating partners? Are we the secular liberal democratic movement that you want to empower as an inclusive movement? Or are we the terrorists, as designated by your own law?” Zomlot said, referring to a special marker in his passport that says he can enter the US despite restrictions in the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006.

He added with an exasperated laugh: “I was teaching your kids at Harvard.”

It wasn’t always this way. When Trump took office vowing to broker the “ultimate deal,” the Palestinians remained cautiously optimistic in public, praising his stated seriousness of purpose about Mideast peace. If Palestinians were leery Trump would try to tip the scales in Israel’s favor, they were careful to give him the chance to prove them wrong.

US President Donald Trump reaches to shake Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Now, the Palestinians in Washington are in disaster mode. Though Trump’s administration insisted the Palestinians would calm down from the Jerusalem announcement after a brief, expected bout of disappointment, the situation has only worsened.

The White House rejects the Palestinians’ argument that by recognizing Israeli claims to Jerusalem, Trump gave Israel a “freebie” before peace talks even started. The Palestinians have long claimed East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Trump suggested he’d actually improved peace prospects by taking “the toughest part of the negotiation off the table.”

Trump described his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

The move was hailed by Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

So when the Palestinians insisted Trump had disqualified the US as a neutral peace broker, the White House reacted angrily, in the Palestinians’ view. It cut tens of millions of dollars to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and froze another $250 million in assistance, demanding the Palestinians agree to talks with Israel.

“What’s crucial at this point in time is not to be obsessed about the box we are in. We just need to find a way out of this box,” Zomlot said, adding: “We are boxed — all of us.”

Case in point: The one activity the Palestinians are decidedly not engaged in — direct, active peace talks — is the only activity they are currently permitted to conduct in Washington.

In November, eight months after Zomlot’s arrival, the Trump administration announced it was shutting him and his operation down because Abbas, in another UN speech, had violated an American law by calling for Israelis to be prosecuted in international court.

The Palestinian flag is seen above the offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington, DC, November 18, 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images via JTA)

After a public backlash, the Trump administration reversed course. It said the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission could stay open, but scaled back: Only activities advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks would be allowed. The US instructed the Palestinians against making new long-term commitments like signing leases or employee contracts.

Abbas, at the Security Council, insisted that if the United States is to be involved in future talks, its role must be limited, alongside other participating governments.

The White House is charging ahead anyway, assuming the Palestinians will relent and consider Kushner’s plan.

“We will present it when it is done and the time is right,” said White House spokesman Josh Raffel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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