Ever unpredictable, Trump throws Mahmoud Abbas a lifeline

US President Donald Trump’s phone conversation Friday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, during which the PA chief was invited to visit to the White House in the near future, has produced considerable optimism in Ramallah.

The American president, whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu anticipated would be far more supportive of Israel than his predecessor Barak Obama, went out of his way in the call to leave Abbas feeling upbeat, PA officials said Saturday.

Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh reported soon after the call on Friday that Trump stressed his “commitment to a peace process that would lead to a real peace between Palestinians and Israelis,” and he hailed the new president as “a very honest man, very courageous man, looking for a deal, a just deal.”

The White House invite was not just extended as “a formal invitation,” one Palestinian official elaborated on Saturday. Rather, Trump made plain “that he wants to host the rais (chairman) as his personal guest.”

The call left the PA leadership with the clear sense that Trump wants to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and intends to work for one.

Palestinian officials have held lower-level talks with officials in the new administration in recent weeks, sources in Ramallah said at the weekend, and concluded that Trump neither wants to impose terms of his own nor to have either one of the sides seek to impose terms. In other words, he will oppose any Palestinian efforts at unilateral action, and, similarly, will oppose dramatic Israeli settlement growth and/or annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Adnan Mjalli (screen capture: YouTube)

The new administration, these officials said, is taking a particular interest in the Palestinian economy, and has been meeting with prominent Palestinian businessmen, including pharma billionaire Adnan Mjalli. Mjalli has apparently operated a back-channel between the White House and Abbas’s Muqata’a headquarters, and is seen as a possible new PA prime minister.

If the Palestinians are correct, then Trump is plainly living up to his unpredictable reputation — defying expectations, this time, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Trump was certainly the gracious host to Netanyahu at the White House last month. Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer is in close, ongoing contact with presidential son-in-law and potential peace broker Jared Kushner. And Trump’s phone call to Netanyahu on Monday, when the prime minister was in the midst of an uncomfortable session of questioning by police over corruption allegations, was nicely timed to enable a break, coincidentally or not.

Nonetheless, unlike Candidate Trump, President Trump is not talking of quickly relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And far from giving a carte blanche for settlement expansion, he publicly urged Netanyahu to “hold back” a little on settlements and said in an interview that settlements are “not a good thing for peace.” He may have declared lightly that he would be happy with a one-state, two-state or any other solution acceptable to both sides, but he hasn’t rushed to negate the two-state solution, and his administration has recommitted to it. And Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said last week that the administration had made plain its opposition to the annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim or any other parts of the West Bank, and that defying this position would be harmful to US-Israel ties.

These, to put it mildly, are not the positions some on the Israeli right had been expecting the Trump Administration to take.

And now, at least in the Palestinian telling, Trump has begun to revive Abbas — drawing the endlessly embattled PA chief back to center-stage. Abbas, whom Israel’s leadership routinely brands “irrelevant,” “not a partner,” and “not genuinely seeking peace,” will soon be on his way to Washington.

It’s not only Israel that has been criticizing Abbas. Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has been undermining the PA president, boosting his rival Mahmoud Dahlan, and cozying up to Hamas, at every opportunity for months.

Trump’s invitation thus constitutes a political lifeline for Abbas. The PA president can hardly be derided as irrelevant if he’s being hosted by the president in Washington, DC.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner arrive for a joint press conference by US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House on February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Trump’s special Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, once a student at Har Etzion yeshiva, will be visiting Jerusalem and Ramallah on Tuesday. CIA chief Mike Pompeo met with Abbas in Ramallah last month. There are even some indications, emphatically unconfirmed at this stage, that Kushner and Ivanka Trump will soon visit the area, and will call in on Abbas.

If Egypt has been working against him, Jordan’s King Abdullah has been energetically championing Abbas’s cause in Washington. It was not by coincidence that Abbas spoke with the king shortly before Trump called, to coordinate, and updated him soon afterwards on the conversation.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis greets Jordan's King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein during an honor cordon at the Pentagon, Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

All of this adds up to more than the faint indication that the Trump administration may be about to plunge into the quicksand of attempted Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. On the campaign trail, Trump acknowledged that this would be hardest of all deals, and maybe its purported impossibility is what he relishes.

The bar right now is so low that even bringing Abbas and Netanyahu together for a photo opportunity on the White House lawn would constitute quite an achievement. Both men would pay a price back home for such an appearance, but if Donald Trump were to invite them, it might be an offer they could not refuse.


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