Views from the Region
The visit of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House in early May appears to have generated some hope among regional commentators that U.S. President Donald Trump may resuscitate the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Regional Arab observers see Mr. Trump as an unlikely — and unpredictable — ally. Considering the important changes taking place within the political wing of Palestinian Authority’s rival Hamas, it may just be that the timing is right for a renewed peace push, although no one is under any illusion about the difficulty of what lies ahead.
According to Khaleej Times’s Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian officials, including President Abbas, believe that President Donald Trump may represent their best hope in years for a final resolution of the conflict: “During his recent visit to Washington DC, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas surprised many by heaping praise on U.S. President Donald Trump....Of course, promises to broker peace are nothing new for a U.S. president. But Trump is no ordinary U.S. president. Many Palestinians are encouraged by the fact that he does not seem bound by the usual lobby-influenced ideologies and commitments of U.S. political parties. In their view, a U.S. president who puts ‘America first’ surely will see the absurdity of spending so much political and financial capital on Israel, which provides little strategic benefit to the U.S., at the cost of greater instability in the Middle East....The main obstacle to an agreement has been insufficient political will on the part of the U.S. to push for the needed compromise. Palestinian leaders hope that Trump, a businessman obsessed with his legacy, will finally display the needed resolve, using the full clout of the U.S. presidency to secure the ‘ultimate deal’.”
In Israel, the Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz suggests that this hope may also be behind Mr. Abbas’s expressed willingness to consider a more flexible approach to the peace negotiations: “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has crossed the Rubicon and voiced ‘unprecedented’ readiness to reach a peace deal with Israel, sources close to the efforts to renew talks between Israel and the Palestinians have told The Jerusalem Post. Abbas, according to the sources, made this clear to President Donald Trump during their meeting at the White House last week. The president plans to use his trip to Israel later this month to receive assurances from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he, too, is committed to a peace agreement.... Since his meeting with Trump last week, Abbas has changed his rhetoric, issuing a number of statements meant to reflect flexibility on previous demands. He has, for example, said that he would renew the talks under Trump’s auspices without preconditions. In the past, he had said he would not negotiate with Netanyahu without a freeze to settlement construction.... Netanyahu, on the other hand, has largely remained quiet. The strategy within the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem seems to be to wait and hope not to be blamed for preventing the success of the peace talks Trump is planning to restart following his visit on May 22.”
The PA is also hedging its bets by cultivating its relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom, as Dov Lieber notes in this Times of Israel report, Abbas met “at the Sochi resort in Western Russia on Thursday, and said that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be ‘impossible’ without the participation of Moscow in the peace process.... Abbas, according to a report in the official PA news site Wafa, also reiterated that he is still willing to participate in a three-way summit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow.... Abbas Foreign Affairs Adviser Nabil Shaath told The Times of Israel on Monday that while the Palestinians are embracing a new round of U.S.-backed talks, they are still committed to working with the wider international community to attain their goal of an independent Palestinian state based on 1967 borders.”
Meanwhile, some conservative Israeli observers, like Arutz Sheva’s David Bedein, have suggested that Mr. Trump should focus only on the refugee question, without providing a more comprehensive solution to the decades-long conflict: “At a time when the new Trump administration focuses on a new Middle East initiative, President Trump's team could invest its energies in a real legacy that can be achieved: providing a humanitarian solution for the millions of descendants of the Arab refugees who fled from the newly proclaimed State of Israel in 1948, and who have lived ever since in 59 ‘temporary’ refugee camps.... The U.S. could address the madness of continuing to create more and more refugees — children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond — and instead apply UNHCR standards of resettlement to UNRWA, to resolve the problem, instead of perpetuating and constantly expanding it. There is much that the Trump administration can do if it wants to establish a Middle East legacy that will last a lifetime. And that will not harm Israel.”
Hamas, meanwhile, has new leadership and an amended founding document, taking a more moderate stance and giving hope to some that peace could be closer than it seems. Hurriyet Daily News’s Mustafa Aydin reports, “It is clear that Hamas wanted to show to the world at large that it is open to change and dialogue ahead of the stepping down of its leader — Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Qatar — on May 6. The entire document and statements from Meshaal attempts to demonstrate that ‘Hamas is not a rigid ideological organization’ and can adapt to the political necessities of the time. Even the election of Ismail Haniyeh last week as Hamas’ new leader, after his extensive contact with Abbas and several other Middle Eastern leaders, was an important message to the outside world. Thus, Hamas is bidding to turn a new page in Middle East politics with its new manifesto and new leader. Time will show whether these rhetorical changes will be reflected in practice.”
Nevertheless, Ramzy Baroud, writing for Jordan Times, is not convinced that the change of Hamas’s position, however historic it may appear, will signal a more “mature” Hamas when it comes to engaging with the peace process: “Now that the Palestinian Islamic Movement Hamas has officially changed its charter, one should not immediately assume that the decision is, in itself, an act of political maturity.... The new charter makes no reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, it realigns Hamas’s political outlook to fit somewhere between national and Islamic sentiments. It consents to the idea of establishing a Palestinian state on the June 1967 border, although it insists on the Palestinian people’s legal and moral claim to all of historic Palestine. It rejects the Oslo agreements, but speaks of the PA as a fact of life; it supports all forms of resistance, but insists on armed resistance as the right of any occupied nation. Expectedly, it does not recognize Israel. Hamas’ new charter seems like a scrupulously cautious attempt at finding political balances within extremely tight political margins. The outcome is a document that is — although it can be understood in the region’s new political context — a frenzied departure from the past.”