When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to visit U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in February, the mood was upbeat. Trump had previously promised to be the “best friend” Israel has ever had in the White House and certainly offered his guest a friendly welcome. The two right-wing leaders shared a warm embrace and a jovial press conference at which each promised to strengthen their countries’ already strong relationship. Netanyahu, nonetheless, was visibly given pause when Trump asked him to “hold back on settlements for a little bit,” but otherwise, the leaders shared multiple laughs, condemnations of the UN and allegations that Palestinians are consumed by hate.
The mood was noticeably different last week when Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Washington, D.C. Although Trump praised Abbas for signing the Declaration of Principles with the Israelis in 1993, he offered nothing more than a vague promise to do “whatever is necessary to facilitate” a peace deal. Trump did not mention the occupation, statehood or self-determination or give any indication that he would stray from the pro-Israel positions he enumerated while meeting with Netanyahu. Despite all that, Abbas turned to Trump and said, in English, “Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope,” referring to Trump’s “great negotiating ability.”
ABBAS NEEDS TRUMP
Abbas’ optimism for Trump is certainly curious given the repeated failure of negotiations under previous administrations that were far more sympathetic to his cause. It is possible that Abbas believes Trump is no worse than any former U.S. presidents who, without exception, staunchly supported Israel. And, since he still believes in a negotiated two state solution, he is trying to make the best out of a difficult situation. What is certain, however, is that Abbas needs Trump, perhaps more than he has needed a U.S. President since his party lost the 2006 legislative elections and was subsequently forced out of Gaza in 2007 by Hamas. Then, the Bush administration worked to undermine the results of the election and armed Fatah in anticipation of the clashes between the rival factions to protect Abbas and his party’s position of power.
The specter of a violent confrontation between Fatah and Hamas has waned. But, Abbas once again finds himself in a tenuous position, lacking electoral and popular legitimacy. Elections have not been held since 2007, and 2017 marks the thirteenth year since Abbas assumed the helm of Palestinian leadership as President of the Palestinian National Authority, the State of Palestine, as well as chairmanship of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 2005. This lack of democratic process has resulted in a growing disconnect between Abbas and his people. A recent poll found that 64% of Palestinians believe Abbas should resign, and 65% believe that the two-state solution, which he has spent much of his career and political capital pursuing, is no longer viable. He is also under increasing fire about the PA’s security coordination with Israel, which Trump pledged to support. A recent manifestation of such coordination is the Israeli assassination of Basel al-Araj.
Furthermore, Abbas’ internal and external rivals are flexing their muscles. Mohammad Dahlan, the former Fatah security chief infamous for his failure and unpopularity in Gaza, has over recent years been seeking to challenge Abbas as leader of the party and the PA. Abbas exiled Dahlan in 2011 and purged his supporters from the party in November, paving the way for Abbas’s reelection as party chief a month later. However, Dahlan enjoys significant support from some Gulf governments, which could spell trouble for Abbas.
At the same time, jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is leading 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in a hunger strike to protest inhumane conditions and Israeli treatment. Barghouti, who has often been described as a Palestinian Mandela, is vastly more popular than Abbas and is even viewed favorably by Hamas supporters. While the strike is focused on improving the conditions for Palestinian prisoners, it has been interpreted as a challenge to Abbas’ leadership. It also has widespread support at home and abroad with solidarity hunger strikes, demonstrations and viral social media campaigns. While Barghouti remains in prison, there is little he can practically do to replace Abbas. But as Barghouti’s international profile and domestic support rises, Abbas risks losing the little relevance and legitimacy he still holds, particularly in the aftermath of his government’s decision to cut the salaries of public sector employees by up to 70% in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Hamas has been attempting to raise its own standing. Last week, the movement released a new political platform that moderated its positions regarding Palestinian self-determination while still refusing to recognize Israel. The document professes Hamas’ support for “the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled.” It also takes great pains to emphasize Hamas’ political, rather than Islamist, aspirations and distinguishes between “the Zionist entity” and the Jewish religion. While its refusal to recognize Israel or give up armed resistance precludes it from direct negotiation with the United States and Israel, Hamas’ recalibration indicates its desire to, at least, end its regional isolation.
Abbas’s meeting with Trump, therefore, offers him legitimacy and relevance as Palestinian president at a time where he is lacking support at home. Despite widespread popular skepticism, Palestinian mainstream and PA media were relatively upbeat about the meeting. With a United States-backed political process, Abbas could once again point to his status as the ‘sole and legitimate representative.’
TRUMP NEEDS ABBAS
Trump needs Abbas too. When 15 pages of Trump’s USAID budget was released in late April, it was notable for the massive cuts – up to 100% of aid for certain countries and programs. In contrast, under this budget, the PA would enjoy a 4% increase in economic aid, which could be interpreted as a strong statement of support by Trump, especially given repeated congressional threats to cut aid to the PA.
There is no reason given in the document explaining why the PA would receive the increase in economic assistance. The likeliest reason is that Trump and his administration see Abbas as far preferable to any of his rivals, not least because of Abbas’ commitment to security coordination with the Israeli occupation, which he described as “sacred” in May 2014. Moreover, it is possible that Trump is attempting to flex his foreign policy muscle within a safe margin ahead of a Middle East tour later this month. Instead of engaging far more volatile questions such as ISIS and Syria, Trump has chosen the question of Palestine, a safe bet that carries with it a greater a sense of predictability.
During the joint press conference, Trump emphasized efforts to “unlock the potential of the Palestinian people through new economic opportunities.” Obviously, the root cause of the economic situation in Palestine is the occupation itself and ten million dollars will do nothing without a comprehensive political solution. Ultimately, the decision to increase aid to the PA reveals that the Trump administration wants to restore Abbas and the PA’s standing in the occupied territories and is willing to pay to do so.
As his rivals gain prominence both domestically and abroad, Abbas’ meeting with Trump is an attempt to demonstrate his status as Palestinian president. However, the meeting, even if it spawns some sort of peace process, will not resolve the deeper questions about Abbas’ lack of electoral or popular legitimacy.