US president Donald Trump hosts Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Washington today. Trump came to power promising that he would achieve the ‘ultimate deal’ and bring peace to Israel-Palestine.
Trump has laid the ground for today with meetings with the Israeli prime minister, Jordanian King, and Egyptian president. He dispatched his envoy for the peace process, Jason Greenblatt, to Ramallah and Jerusalem in March, where he reportedly impressed both sides. Jibril Rajoub, an important figure in Fatah, today penned an op-ed calling the Trump administration a “rare chance” for peace.
Other observers are sceptical, however, and the Palestinians themselves may come away disillusioned with the demands that are made of them. The reason? Each round of negotiations has put them in a worse and worse position, having made more and more concessions. That has often been their own fault, but also fundamentally represents the imbalance of an occupied people negotiating with their occupier.
So, with another round of negotiations imminent, can Abbas’ Palestinian government actually compromise on anything more?
Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, the Israeli paper’s well respected diplomatic correspondent, reported that the Palestinians were going to be asked to stop payments made to the families of those killed during the conflict with Israel, as well as to prisoners and their families. These payments have become an increasing focus of Israeli government advocacy, as they see them as proof that the Palestinian government supports ‘terror’.
The problem is that ‘martyrs’ and prisoners are two categories of people untouchable in Palestinian society. They are widely viewed as having made huge sacrifices in the struggle against the occupation, and any move that would be seen as hurting them or their families would provoke huge anger.
This is only more the case now that imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti - often seen as a challenger for the Palestinian leadership - is a leading a mass hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The strike has proved popular amongst the Palestinian public, with lots of media attention and solidarity actions. Any move against benefits for Prisoners whilst they are on strike would be disastrous PR for Abbas, who is already very unpopular.
Abbas may also be asked to drop his demand that the Israelis announce a freeze on settlement building before negotiations begin once more. This demand is in place because settlements have grown massively over the almost 25 years since the Oslo accords were signed - the agreement that was meant to pave the way for a Palestinian state after a five-year transition. Most Palestinians feel that the Israelis have used previous rounds of negotiations to simply carry on business as normal.
It could be that Abbas takes a gamble and decides to drop this demand for a freeze in exchange for a commitment from Trump that he will hold Netanyahu to “hold off on settlements a little bit”, as he famously asked the Israeli prime minister at their joint press conference in Washington in February.
Abbas will be wary, however, of appearing to capitulate too much at a time when the militant group Hamas is trying to appeal to those Palestinians who have become disillusioned with the Palestinian government’s cooperation with Israel. An addendum to their 1988 founding charter, released on Monday, watered down much of its harsh language. It was seen by some as an attempt to move closer to the positions of Fatah, in order to mop up the support Abbas’ party is losing.
Likewise, Trump may press Abbas over incitement by officials in his government. The Israeli government identified this - rather than frustration with the occupation - as the major reason behind an October 2015 upsurge in violence. In the eyes of Israel and its supporters, the incitement shows that the Palestinians are not a true ‘partner for peace’, because they are antisemites and supporters of violence.
This is despite the fact that the Israeli security establishment has consistently praised the Palestinian government for working with them to tamp down violence - and although they would not say it, suppress dissent - in the West Bank. It therefore seems that the incitement is often a case of talking tough for a domestic audience, a smokescreen for a government that is actually cooperating with Israel on every level: a policy deeply distasteful to many Palestinians.
It is doubtful therefore whether the incitement is a real political stumbling block or simply an excuse for an Israeli government that has not shown any inclination to make concessions necessary to achieve a peace deal.
The test for whether Trump really can make a deal, then, will be whether he can force those concessions from Israel, which enjoys a position of strength unique in its history, without having to force the Palestinians to do things that they simply cannot, because of domestic politics.
After the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993, the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said wrote that the accords revealed the “truly astonishing proportions of the Palestinian capitulation.” Whether there is any room left at home for Abbas to make a capitulation of a similar magnitude this time round does not appear likely.
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