President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, traveled to the White House on Wednesday for his first meeting with President Donald Trump. In brief comments after the meeting, both leaders expressed their hope for a future peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, with Trump promising to act as “mediator, an arbitrator, or a facilitator.”
Before this announcement, the Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Aaron David Miller, former advisor to both Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations, to discuss what could come from the meeting, the current state of Palestinian governance, and the potential for reviving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Trump Administration.
The Cipher Brief: What should we expect from the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House?
Aaron David Miller: We shouldn’t expect any popping champagne corks or breakthroughs, but it is an important meeting nonetheless, and one in which both leaders clearly have a stake in declaring success. For Abbas, he needs to demonstrate his relevance and his capacity to talk to, have access to, and perhaps influence the President of the United States.
On the issue of what’s going to happen, on the question of Palestinian statehood, for President Trump, if he wants to do the “ultimate deal,” he needs to find a way to create some sort of relationship with the Palestinians. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is not one hand clapping. Assuming President Trump is serious about what he intends to do, it will involve in some way, depending on what the strategy is, reconciling Israeli regional requirements with the Palestinians.
I think the meeting will be portrayed by both sides as a good one. You’ll see very little broken crockery publically, even though I think President Trump is going to push Abbas hard on issues like incitement, glorification or martyrs, and payments to prisoners, and probably try to get from him what he needs to enter into a serious negotiation. The less whining that Abbas does with respect to painting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as not serious and not interested in the peace process, the better off he’ll be. Rather than do that, Abbas needs to lay out what his requirements are.
Since Abbas made his tour of the Arab world, he will try to turn Trump’s outside-in approach into an inside-out approach to flank both Trump and Netanyahu. He may well play on something that’s important, which is how to involved the Sunni Arab states in the peace process. This is going to come back to the Arab Peace Initiative, which incorporates most of Abbas’ needs and requirements as the core Palestinian positions – Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, 1967 borders, and something on refugees.
President Trump is supposed to travel to the Middle East, reports suggest, at the end of the month. One of Abbas’ missions is to get a commitment from President Trump that he will visit Ramallah when he comes. How the White House is going to play this is unclear. If they want to go to Ramallah, they can – they should probably get something for it. But if they don’t, then President Trump can always say, “Look, I saw President Abbas three weeks ago in Washington.” I’m not sure tactically how that is going to work out.
This is going to be the first of presumably many meetings, not necessarily with President Trump himself, but with members of his administration, if Trump is serious about trying to do diplomacy in an effort to reach some sort of an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
TCB: It was reported that Abbas has threatened unprecedented sanctions on Hamas. What is the level of cooperation between Abbas and the Hamas leadership? Does Abbas in any way represent Hamas positions or speak on their behalf?
AM: Let’s be clear. Since 2007, you have so much history, blood, and bad faith between Abbas and Hamas that the prospects of any serious unification, let alone Abbas speaking on behalf of Hamas, do not add up.
The Palestinian national movement looks like Noah’s Ark. There are two of everything – two constitutions, two sets of security services, two statelets, two sets of patrons, two visions of what the state of Palestine is supposed to be and where it is supposed to be. The odds that Abbas will speak for Hamas, let alone reconcile and bring Fatah back to Gaza in any meaningful way, are slim to none.
And the cruelest reality of all, is that Israelis, I think, would prefer Hamas in place if the alternative means dysfunction and chaos in Gaza.
Netanyahu, I think, also looks at Hamas as a justification for not seriously engaging in negotiations with the Palestinian movement. After all, what do the Palestinians really offer for Israel in the end? You have to take the “peace equation” out of it. What most Israelis would want from an agreement is all the guns of Palestine silenced. All of them, in a comprehensive, air tight, at least in terms of organized violence, ended. They want their Palestinian interlocutors to have a monopoly on the forces of violence within Palestinian society.
Abbas cannot deliver that. In fact, after three confrontation between Israel and Hamas, I think the Israelis have worked out an intriguingly functional relationship with Hamas. It preempted the prospects of another confrontation. They are quite worried by the current electricity crisis, which is Abbas’ way of punishing Hamas and demonstrating that he can be tough by not paying Hamas’ bills anymore. But in the end, when Israel needs something, where does it go? When it needs its prisoners returned, it goes to Hamas. When it needs a ceasefire, it goes to Hamas.
This reflects the fact that Abbas, 12 years into a four-year term, has failed to establish the kind of relevance that is required to speak broadly, authoritatively, and legitimately on behalf of the Palestinian national movement as a whole. It’s a fantasy for Abbas to believe that he now has increased leverage, which is going to fundamentally alter Hamas’ control of Gaza. Control of Gaza and the armed struggle, which many Palestinians still respect, are the only things that Hamas’ has left, and they are not about to give either of those up.
TCB: If Israel looks to Hamas when it needs something, what message does that send to Abbas and the way that he has approached this conflict through diplomatic means such as the UN? Does this seemingly indicate that a return to violence is the most effective way to catch Israel’s attention?
AM: The idea that Abbas would return to the armed struggle, even while the Israelis continue to accuse him of acquiescing violence, glorifying martyrs, paying prisoners and the like, is the key to an empty room and ultimately the destruction of what remains of his authority and legitimacy.
Not only doesn’t he believe in it, but the notion that his political party, Fatah, is going to return to a pathway, which is going to basically say, “we can only achieve Palestinian national aspirations through violence and/or terror” would shred his remaining relevance. So there is no pathway there for him.
The problem for Abbas is that right now, the Israelis and Palestinians cannot find a way into negotiations. There is absolutely no way that these two guys would ever be able to agree within the next couple of years on the six core issues that drive the Israel-Palestinian conflict – borders, security, refugees, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews, Jerusalem, and the claims. There is absolutely no way. The gaps are profound. Suspicion and mistrust are incredibly deep.
Negotiations, frankly, are a dead end right now. A return to armed struggle is also a dead end. Even Hamas has recognized that, and it came to a head in 2004 when Israelis began eliminating Hamas’ leaders. The Israeli security forces, the Shin Bet, delivered clear messages to the Hamas leadership that if you continue terror within Israel, we will kill your leadership. And the Israelis began to eliminate them. Even Hamas understands the downsides of picking up on homicide or suicide terror within Israel proper.
The international route was never promising. As symbolic as all of these nations’ recognition of the state of Palestine may be, they or the UN cannot create a real Palestinian state. So Abbas has no good options.
But, with Abbas now 82, Trump may be the last U.S. president with whom he deals. That does not mean that Abbas is desperate for a deal or determined to create one. Certainly not to commit political suicide.
TCB: As Abbas is getting older, what is his standing within the Palestinian government? Are there any possible replacements in line for him?
AM: The most popular Palestinian in the West Bank is Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving five lifetime sentences. Should the Israelis decide at some point that he is a legitimate and authoritative partner? Who knows. Maybe they might release him, but that’s hard to imagine. But who knows.
They are not talking about any single individual replacing Abbas. We’ve seen the end of that. When former PA leader Yasser Arafat died in the fall of 2004, you had the prospects of a relatively and actually quite stable and fluid transition to the only consensus candidate who represented the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), who could deal with the Israelis, and who had credibility with the international community. That was Mahmoud Abbas.
Today, you don’t have any single individual that is emblematic of all of those traits. Plus, Abbas was elected. What you will presumably see is a collegial leadership until any individual emerges.
We can speculate all day long about Muhammad Dahlan in the United Arab Emirates or Majid Faraj, the head of Palestinian security, or one of the political negotiators. I just don’t see any individual with the street cred, authority, and legitimacy to replace Abbas.
TCB: On Monday, the Hamas leadership unveiled the organization’s new policy document, which some analysts see as softening the group’s language against Israel, but many of Hamas’ overarching stances remained the same. How could this impact the organization, the Palestinian leadership and negotiations?
AM: First of all, this is not a transformational move. This is only the first initial update. There may be more. Who knows what the exact language is and what meaning Hamas’ operatives and leaders actually give to formulations that they’ve actually used.
This is transaction. It tells you more about the current pressure and conditions under which the organization is acting than it does anything about its behavior.
Number two, words are fine, but behavior is absolutely critical. I see very little way that the most objectionable forms of Hamas’ behavior are going to be altered by what they’ve done.
It seems to me, this is a response to a series of pressures. Keeping the lights on in Gaza has created a crisis, funding has dried up, and Hamas’ is under heavy pressure from the Egyptians. It’s not wise now be identified with or associated with the Salafi-Jihadis. In large part, this is an effort to create a softer image. I just don’t see the positive consequences for [Hamas] because you essentially have the worst of both worlds. You will not do enough to fundamentally change the image of Hamas, and playing with the words will only reaffirm and validate the notion that they are playing games.
I’ll come back to my basic proposition. The Palestinian national movement looks like Noah’s Ark. Until the problem of Palestinian unity is somehow addressed – and I see no way that Hamas and Abbas can get together right now – they will continue to have a dysfunction, which, may not prevent the start of negotiations but is going to inhibit, restrain, and undermine their conclusion.
TCB: What are some of the most contentious issues that remain on the table in any negotiations?
AM: Borders, security, refugees, the status of Jerusalem, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jews, and end of claims. Those are the six issues under which every other issue and aspect of the conflict falls.