Donald Trump’s quixotic attempt to broker what he once he termed the “ultimate deal” – a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians – bore its first tentative signs of success this week when President Mahmoud Abbas indicated he was prepared to begin talks with Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Palestinian president’s announcement came during meetings in Ramallah with Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and follows a meeting last week between Abbas and Trump. Shortly after Abbas sat down with the US president, the White House announced that Trump will travel to Israellater this month as part of his first foreign visit since taking office. He will also make stops in Saudi Arabia and the Vatican, symbolically taking in the spiritual centres of Islam, Judaism and Catholicism. “We told him [Trump] that we were ready to collaborate with him and meet the Israeli prime minister under his auspices to build peace,” Abbas said on Tuesday.
The Palestinian president, who has repeatedly shied away from direct face-to-face talks with Netanyahu, appears to have made his move, in part, in order to secure a visit to the West Bank by Trump. When the US president’s trip was announced, a senior Trump aide indicated a stop in the Palestinian territories would be dependent on both security and Abbas taking concrete steps towards peace. Trump now looks likely to visit Bethlehem, side-stepping reported PA attempts to hold a welcoming ceremony in Ramallah, which would have involved the US president arriving by way of an adjacent mausoleum which houses the grave of Yasser Arafat.
The warmth of the meeting between Abbas and Trump surprised many observers. The PA had previously indicated strong disapproval of the president’s campaign pledge to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, while also making clear they would reject any pressure from Trump to cease paying salaries to terrorists serving time in Israeli prisons. Ramallah had also been concerned by the US president’s seeming abandonment of a two-state solution. When Trump met Netanyahu earlier this year, he said he “could live with” with either a one or two-state deal, so long as it was what “both parties want”. But, during his meeting with Abbas last week, the US president cast himself as an honest broker. “I will do whatever is necessary to facilitate the agreement,” he told a joint news conference with the PA leader, “to mediate, to arbitrate anything they’d like to do, but I would be a mediator or an arbitrator or a facilitator.” In turn, Abbas praised Trump’s “great negotiating ability”. The US president went on to express confidence that “we will get this done”.
The Palestinians subsequently poured further praise on Trump. “There was a positive reaction because people did not know what to expect. It’s difficult to predict Mr. Trump. He was very warm, respectful, gave equal treatment to our president, like he’s given to other heads of state that he’s met,” Nabil Shaath, a foreign affairs adviser to Abbas, told The Times Of Israel.
Sceptics, however, questioned Trump’s apparent optimism. Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations said the president’s comments were “completely lacking in any sense of how, what the path forward is, what it is about”. Former State Department negotiator Dennis Ross struck a mildly more optimistic note. “You can’t solve the conflict right now. The gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians are too wide. We are at the lowest ebb in Israeli-Palestinian perceptions of each other since I’ve been working on this,” Ross said. “But you can create a sense of possibility, you can break the stalemate, you can show that something is possible. And that’s what I think can happen here — you can show that a sense of possibility exists.”
An indication of the multiple roadblocks which lie ahead was provided by PA reactions to US pressure to end payments to prisoners and families of ‘martyrs’. In an interview last week with Israel Radio, Shaath called the demand to end the payments “insane” and suggested the matter could only be settled in any future negotiations.
Other analysts have questioned how helpful Trump’s rhetoric around the “ultimate deal” truly is. Seeing an end to the conflict through such a “transactional lens”, warns Ofer Zalzber of the International Crisis Group, risks simplifying the deeply rooted and complex issues at its very heart, including divided societies in both Israel and Palestine as well as differing historical narratives and questions of religion and identity.