What to Expect from the Trump-Abbas Meeting
WASHINGTON – After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s high-profile visit to the White House in February, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will have his turn to forge a relationship with the new US President this week. However, with few detailed statements by Washington or Ramallah regarding the upcoming meeting, Middle East analysts emphasize the importance of holding the meeting itself so early in Trump’s presidency.
“I think a reaffirmation of the Trump administration’s intention of re-engaging seriously with an issue that the Obama administration gave up on and that few people expected the Trump administration to engage seriously with. This is all surprising and good,” Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington told Jewish Insider. “During the campaign, many people thought it would be difficult for this administration to form a mutually respectful relationship with both the Israelis and the Palestinians. I think they have done that in short order in a very pragmatic and impressive way. On the other hand, going beyond that to the stage to find some sort of workable formula to move the parties forward, that is a whole other story.”
Aaron David Miller, former Middle East peace negotiator during the Clinton and Bush administrations, noted the mutual interests of the U.S. and Palestinian leaders this week. “Both Trump and Abbas need — and will have — a successful meeting — Abbas to maintain his relevance and Trump to at least maintain the illusion that he’ll broker the “‘ultimate deal” between Israel and Palestinians,” he said. Given the President’s upcoming visit to Israel next month, the Abbas visit takes on extra importance to prepare for a possible trilateral meeting with Netanyahu, Miller added.
At the same time, some experts caution about a possible clash between the US and Palestinian leaders. “If you go back to the Presidential primary campaign where he talked about some of his opponents as weak. That’s the question he’s going to need to decide after he meets Abbas,” explained Elliott Abrams, Deputy National Security Advisor during the George W. Bush administration. “Is he a person strong enough to actually deliver a comprehensive peace agreement? I think the personal aspect of this is going to be significant.“
In an interview with Reuters last week, Trump expressed his strong desire to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. “I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump stated. “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians – none whatsoever.”
Grant Rumley, an expert in Palestinian politics at the Foundation of Defense for Democracies, argued that there is a disconnect for what the Palestinian Authority and the Trump administration envision out of this new relationship. “Trump wants the deal. Abbas wants peace talks and the process of peace talks: photo opps in the White House, in large part out of domestic consideration. Nobody can challenge Abbas’ relevancy at home if he is in the White House with Trump and Kushner, meeting with Tillerson in Europe,” Rumley noted. “Both sides are destined for a collision at some point unless something changes because they want different things.”
Ibish emphasized that without addressing the core political disputes between Palestinians and Israelis, the Trump administration will have a difficult time making genuine progress. “(Jason) Greenblatt by all accounts has been pursuing economic initiatives that would bring short term relief to the Palestinians on the West Bank. That is a very good place to start, but eventually it only goes so far,” he asserted.
Eyes in Jerusalem will certainly be focused on Trump’s meeting with Abbas. “If there are public statements by the President that are very complimentary of Abbas, it will annoy the Israelis,” said Abrams. “Because, what is the record here? He said no to a generous offer by Olmert. He said no to Kerry and Obama, So, there is no particular reason why he should get lots of compliments without his commitment to a peace agreement. And if there is a lot of flowery language, the Israelis are going to ask, what is going on?”
The issue of Palestinian payment of stipends to families of terrorists will be on the top of the wish list of many in the pro-Israel community, Rumley noted, “They will want the administration to really hammer Abbas with that (payment of terrorist families). The question will be how will Abbas respond. When I bring that up in conversation with folks, they usually defer to: ‘if we don’t pay the prisoners, Hamas will or maybe even Iran.’ That is their defense but that dog ain’t going to hunt with this administration and Congress.”