ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 148

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Analysis

Meeting Trump, Abbas looks to calm jitters over US wildcards

After overcoming fears of blackballing, Palestinians now hoping to make sure White House doesn’t make any unexpected or harmful moves

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian hangs a poster depicting late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Nablus, March 14, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90
A Palestinian hangs a poster depicting late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Nablus, March 14, 2017. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90

Four months after entering the White House, US President Donald Trump will Wednesday meet for the first time with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Despite the impression created by senior Palestinian figures, there are no great expectations at this stage among Abbas’s associates, and there is also a good deal of fear of all the possible wildcards in the equation.

That fear has been around since Trump won the presidency, but it was dissipated somewhat several weeks ago when the US president phoned Abbas and invited him to the White House. The invite constituted a significant achievement from the point of view of Ramallah, which had worried that Trump was planning to avoid the Palestinian leader.

With that one phone call, new energy was injected into a man who had been deemed “irrelevant” in Jerusalem and Cairo, making him once again the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Critical voices in Cairo against Abbas and in favor of his rival Mohammad Dahlan have fallen silent. Israel, too, will have to cope with the significance of improved relations between the PA president and his American counterpart.

Mahammed Dahlan (photo credit: Issam Rimawi / Flash90)
Mohammed Dahlan (Issam Rimawi / Flash90)

Beyond the symbolism, the Palestinian leader is chiefly hoping to use the meeting to prevent anything that might harm the Palestinian Authority and cause unrest.

However, the lack of any commitments by the White House during preparatory meetings ahead of the visit have led to significant consternation in Ramallah.

The PA’s first ask is for the US Embassy not to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As of now, senior Palestinians have not received any clear promises that the embassy relocation will not happen.

This is why Abbas held talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi before taking off for Washington. The Palestinian leader asked for backing from the moderate Sunni Arab states on the issue and apparently got it.

On the sidelines of the 28th Arab League Summit on March 29, 2017, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan (C) and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. (Wafa/Thaer Ghnaim)
On the sidelines of the 28th Arab League Summit on March 29, 2017, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan (C) and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. (Wafa/Thaer Ghnaim)

Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have already told Washington that they oppose an US Embassy move.

Secondly, Abbas will try to halt an initiative in Congress to freeze PA funding for as long as Ramallah pays salaries to Palestinian security prisoners in Israel jails. Stopping the payments publicly would be political suicide. It is possible that a solution will be found by allowing Palestine Liberation Organization institutions, rather than the PA itself, to deal with the matter.

It was for this reason that the prisoner affairs department was split off from the Palestinian government some time ago, but was allowed to continue within the framework of the PLO.

Another, even more substantial issue underpinning Palestinian (and Israeli) fears is that behind the backs of Israel and the Palestinians, Trump is planning a diplomatic step or framework that will force both sides’ hands.

The Palestinians worry that Trump will force them to return to negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without dealing with settlement building and will then present a diplomatic framework which does not take account of Palestinian demands on Jerusalem or which will demand a temporary solution before a permanent one.

Construction in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron, on April 2, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Construction in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank city of Hebron, on April 2, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The PA is not interested in any international peace conference with the participation of Arab states that does not include any quid pro quo from Jerusalem.

Abbas’s message to Trump will simply be: “A two-state solution or continued settlement building. The two things don’t go together.”

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