The growing tensions between the Trump White House and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, which began when President Trump recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital last December, followed by the move of the US embassy to Yerushalayim in May, have now broken out into open diplomatic conflict.
The White House expressed its anger at PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ boycott of the White House peacemaking initiative led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, through a series of diplomatic actions and a cut of more than $500 million in US funding for Palestinian aid pro-grams. These actions will substantially increase the financial and diplomatic cost to the Pales-tinians from continuing to boycott and obstruct the current US peacemaking effort.
The US has eliminated its direct funding for the Palestinian Authority and for UNRWA, the United Nations body which was set up in 1949 to help Palestinian refugees.
In a sharp change from Obama administration policy, the US has come to the active defense of Israel at the United Nations. Under the leadership of ambassador Nikki Haley, the US has blocked all Arab attempts to get the Security Council to condemn Israel and has acted against the UN bodies which have become notorious for unfairly condemning Israel.
The most dramatic change has been in the public attitude of the State Department towards Isra-el. In the prior administration, the State Department had been a center of pro-Arab, anti-Israel sentiment. It was constantly issuing statements challenging Israel’s rights to build homes for Jews in East Yerushalayim and the West Bank. But after the Trump administration reached an agreement with Israel on new construction guidelines last year, the criticism stopped. Instead, the State Department has been making a strong case for White House moves to punish the Pal-estinians for boycotting the Trump peace initiative. It has also supported Israel’s right to defend itself against the weekly Hamas-instigated attacks along the Gaza border fence and the threat-ening Iranian military presence which has been growing across the Syrian border.
CLOSING THE PLO OFFICE IN WASHINGTON
Most recently, the Trump administration ordered the closure of the de facto embassy of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington, DC, which had been elevated by the Obama administration in 2010 to full diplomatic status.
A State Department statement made the reason for that closure crystal clear. “We have permit-ted the PLO office to conduct operations that support the objective of achieving a lasting, com-prehensive peace between Israelis and the Palestinians since the expiration of a previous waiver [permitting the PLO office to remain open] in November 2017,” the statement said. “However, the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Is-rael. To the contrary, PLO leadership has condemned a US peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the US government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise.”
So far, Palestinian leaders have not yielded to the escalating pressure from the Trump admin-istration. Abbas insists that he will never meet with Kushner or Greenblatt again. The PA leader has also said that he won’t accept an invitation to meet with Trump either, unless he first re-moves Kushner and Greenblatt from the White House peacemaking team.
Palestinian leaders are also doubling down on their efforts to get international institutions, such as the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice to condemn Israel for its alleged “crimes” against the Palestinians people and to order the US to reverse its recent funding cuts.
THE FIGHT OVER MOVING A BEDOUIN VILLAGE
Abbas has said he will complain to the International Count of Justice about the planned razing of a primitive Bedouin village called Khan al-Ahmar located next to Israel’s Highway 1, con-necting East Yerushalayim with the large West Bank city of Maaleh Adumim. The Israeli gov-ernment says that the village is unsafe because of its close proximity to the highway and its lack of basic utilities. It is also illegal because it was built without government permits. The Israeli government has already built new homes for the villagers at a site just a few miles away, complete with electricity, running water and a sewage treatment plant, at a cost of $2 million.
The Bedouin tribe originally lived in the Negev desert, and was moved to its current site in the 1950s when the West Bank was under Jordanian control. The Bedouins say that despite the spartan living conditions, they do not want to leave their current location.
After years of appeals, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the Bedouin objections and issued a final ruling giving the government the right to evict and relocate them. The case has attracted international attention because the Bedouin village is located adjacent to the E-1 land bridge, one of the last pieces of undeveloped land between Yerushalayim and the Arab-populated vil-lages to the east of the city. Palestinians and their advocates argue that it is essential to keep E-1 and the adjacent area free of Israeli development, so that it can serve as a connecting corridor for a future Palestinian state.
The Palestinian complaint filed with the international court accuses Israel of committing “war crimes” against the 180 residents of Khan al-Ahmar, including forcible displacement, ethnic cleansing, and the destruction of civilian property.
Federica Mogherini, the foreign policy minister of the European Union, objected to the removal of the Bedouin village, on the grounds that it would “be a blow against the viability of the state of Palestine and against the very possibility of a two-state solution.”
Abbas has also revived the long-discredited charge that the Israeli government plans to upset the delicate religious status quo on Har Habayis by permitting Jews who visit the site – in vio-lation of halacha – to daven there. Israeli officials and police insist that there is no such plan, and that all Jewish visitors to the Har Habayis will continue to be closely monitored by police to prevent them from praying.
The unfounded accusation was the rallying cry which started the Second Intifada in 2000. Since then, Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have frequently used it to instigate fresh terrorist at-tacks throughout Israel.
US WARNS AGAINST INTERNATIONAL COURT MEDDLING
Any effort by the Palestinians to seek diplomatic recognition or satisfaction of their claims out-side of direct negotiations with Israel has long been regarded by the US as a violation of the ground rules for the Oslo accords. The US also says that, under international law, the tribunals do not have jurisdiction over Israel or the United States, because the two countries refused to sign the treaties which established the courts.
Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton warned that “If the court [ICC] comes after us, Israel or other US allies, we will not sit quietly. The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court.” He added that, “While the court welcomes the membership of the so-called State of Pal-estine, it has threatened Israel — a liberal, democratic nation…”
Bolton also accused the ICC prosecutor of launching “an utterly unfounded, unjustifiable inves-tigation” against American citizens “for alleged detainee abuse, and perhaps more. We will not cooperate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own.”
TRUMP’S FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE IN US POLICY
Since the Oslo peace accords were signed 25 years ago, the US has been treating the Palestinian Authority with kid gloves. It has deliberately overlooked Palestinian provocations, rampant corruption, blatant anti-Semitism and open support for terrorism by Palestinian leaders, start-ing with Yasser Arafat and continuing with Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in the 14th year of his four-year term as president of the PA.
That era is now over. US officials have run out of patience with the Palestinians. Their recent moves are designed to show the Palestinians that their continued obstruction of US peace ef-forts will come at a high price.
During a conference call with American Jewish leaders prior to Rosh Hashanah, Trump re-vealed his growing frustration with the Palestinians for resisting his peacemaking initiative. He noted that “The United States was paying [the Palestinians] tremendous amounts of money. And I say, ‘You’ll get money, but we’re not paying until you make a deal. If you don’t make a deal, we’re not paying.’”
ENDING A WASTE OF TAXPAYER MONEY
The State Department says that the more than $500 million in current US funding that has been cut from UNWRA, the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian hospitals in East Yerushalayim is gone for good. As a State Department official put it, “those funds will go to high-priority pro-jects elsewhere.”
Many American supporters of Israel believe that deep cuts in the generous US funding for cor-rupt Palestinian institutions and humanitarian aid programs are long overdue. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said, “Since 1994, the United States has thrown more than $10 billion in humanitarian aid to Palestinians. Without minimizing the importance of medical treatment and quality education for children – and we don’t, not even for a minute – we found that these expenditures were bringing the region no closer to peace or stability, not even by a millimeter. To spend hard-earned taxpayer dollars to fund stipends to terrorists and their families, to ex-pend funds to perpetuate rather than mitigate refugee status, and to finance hate-filled text-books – I ask you, how does that provide value to the United States or the region?”
The US, Friedman added, is “not in the business of, as they say, throwing good money after bad. Make no mistake, the USA is a generous nation and we would love, truly love, to invest in this region for the return on investment of peace and stability in Israel and a better quality of life for the Palestinians. Indeed, we continue to provide funding, 40 percent of the funding for the UN High Commission on Refugees. UNHCR, in contrast to UNRWA, seeks to end state-lessness, not deploy it as a political weapon.”
Critics of UNRWA point out that the agency spends four times the amount of money per capita on Palestinian refugees than the UNHCR spends on other refugees around the world. During Israel’s wars in Gaza, the alleged neutrality of UNRWA schools and other facilities has fre-quently been violated by Hamas, which uses them as weapons storage sites and missile firing positions. The text books used in UNRWA schools are notorious for their anti-Semitic content and denial of the ancient history of Jews living in the land of Israel.
Trump’s pro-Israel shift began in December with his recognition of Israel’s claim to Yerushalayim and his decision to quickly move the US embassy there. It continued in May with Trump’s decision to reinstate US sanctions on Iran and continued with the announcement of a series of direct and indirect aid cuts which will leave the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA desperately short of the money they need to pay their bills and maintain their current services. Trump’s latest move, the closure of the PLO office in Washington, DC, strikes directly at Ab-bas’ efforts to secure international recognition for the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause with-out first having to reach a peace agreement with Israel.
A BLOW AGAINST PALESTINIAN PROPAGANDA
Israeli MK Michael Oren concurred, and said that Trump simply restored the rules of the game and forced the Palestinian leadership to pay a price for its policy change vis-à-vis Israel.
Michael Oren, who was Israel’s highly respected ambassador to the US during the Obama years, and is now a minister in Netanyahu’s government, said that “With the closing of the PLO office in Washington, the American administration is not changing the rules of the game, but simply restoring them after years of neglect. It should be noted that in contrast to previous ad-ministrations that would reward the Palestinians for abandoning the negotiations with Israel, President Trump is forcing the Palestinians to pay a price.”
He added that the main function of the PLO office in Washington was to spread Palestinian propaganda. By closing it, Trump has made it more difficult for them to promote their decep-tive narrative of Israeli guilt and Palestinian victimhood, which, in some ways, hurts them more than the reduction in US aid.
The State Department noted that in 1987, Congress passed a law requiring the closure of the PLO office in Washington, DC, because it had been officially declared to be a terrorist organi-zation. However, there was a provision which gave presidents the option to sign waivers block-ing enforcement in the name of national security for six months at a time. Using such waivers, presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama allowed the PLO office to stay open, hoping that it would encourage the peace. In 2010, Obama gave the PLO office diplomat-ic status.
But President Trump was skeptical of the PLO’s good intentions. His administration warned the Palestinians that the office would be closed unless they agreed to reopen negotiations with the Israelis. “As such, and reflecting congressional concerns, the administration has decided that the PLO office in Washington will close at this point,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert explained. But she also emphasized that, “The United States continues to believe that direct negotiations between the two parties are the only way forward. This action should not be exploited by those who seek to act as spoilers to distract from the imperative of reaching a peace agreement. We are not retreating from our efforts to achieve a lasting and comprehensive peace.”
Trump’s order closing the PLO office in Washington was applauded in independent statements issued by several American Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, the Endowment for Middle East Truth, the Jewish Policy Center and the Republican Jewish Committee. They called the closure a necessary measure to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and a long overdue effort to stop the PLO from “promoting hatred and violence against Israel.” But the president of the liberal J Street lobbying group criticized the closure as “the latest in a series of moves explicitly intended to pressure and undermine the on-ly government among the US, Israel and the Palestinians that currently endorses a two-state so-lution.”
TRUMP LABELED ISRAEL’S POLITICAL “MAN OF THE YEAR”
Trump’s pro-Israel policies have also helped to transform the Israeli political scene, greatly strengthening the hand of Prime Minister Netanyahu by undermining the argument of his oppo-nents that his increasingly bitter personal feud with President Obama was poisoning the critical US-Israel alliance.
In a tongue-in-cheek Ynet op-ed, Nochum Barnea, the dean of Israel’s left-wing media com-mentators, nominated Donald Trump as the “Man of the Year” of Israeli politics. Barnea credits Trump’s confrontational policies for overseeing a “revolution” in Israel’s “political culture, the priorities of its political parties and its policies toward the Palestinians.”
Barnea is no admirer of Trump, but says he understands what the American president has been doing – applying to foreign policy the same formula which he used to defeat his opponents and win the 2016 presidential election. “Trump believes that in order to solicit concessions from his opponent, he must first threaten them and debase them. If they are humiliated, they will fold. If they don’t fold, they will be punished,” Barnea writes.
Trump defends his decision to abandon the traditional ground rules of Middle East peacemak-ing by telling senior diplomats in the US and in international arena, “I don’t care about your warnings. . . Your caution has led America to failure after failure. The time has come to break with convention.”
At the outset of his presidency, Trump kept his campaign promise to assign his son-in-law, Jar-ed Kushner, to restart the moribund peace process. After making a goodwill visit to Israel dur-ing his first major foreign trip, Trump invited Abbas to visit the White House, in an effort to set the stage for what could be the diplomatic “deal of the century.”
But Kushner and his team soon realized that the Abbas had no interest in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. Instead, Abbas would cite old Palestinian demands regarding Yerushalayim and the refugee right of return as excuses to avoid re-engaging in serious peace negotiations with Israel. At the same time, he would threaten to go elsewhere to satisfy Pales-tinian demands for diplomatic recognition and that Israel be condemned by international tribu-nals for committing imagined “crimes” against the Palestinian people.
PALESTINIANS COULD NEVER ACCEPT “YES” AS ISRAEL’S ANSWER
It is the same Palestinian mindset which has blocked any meaningful progress toward a final status agreement since the collapse of the 2000 Camp David summit. It failed because Yasser Arafat had no response for the generous deal including territorial and diplomatic concessions he was offered by President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Instead, Arafat walked away from the table, and launched the terrorist war now known as the Second Intifada which killed roughly 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians. Another casualty of that bitter con-flict was the goodwill on both sides necessary to implement any lasting peace agreement.
The offer Barak made to Arafat at Camp David, and an even more generous offer which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made to Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2008, would have cre-ated a Palestinian state with more than 90% of the West Bank and control over the Arab ma-jority-populated neighborhoods of East Yerushalayim. Yet the Palestinian leaders stubbornly refused to accept the offers. Abbas and his associates have distorted the very meaning of the word “negotiation” by demanding full Israeli compliance with the original Palestinians de-mands.
Unwilling to admit that Palestinian intransigence had killed any hope of success for the Oslo peace process, the international community has preferred to blame the impasse on the West Bank Jewish communities Israel has built since 1967. Altogether, the built-up portions of the settlements cover less than 2% of West Bank land. The vast majority were built without dis-placing local Arabs, in vacant areas of Area C, which the Oslo accords recognized as being un-der full Israeli control. Yet Israel’s critics who dominate the international community and the mainstream media have accepted the false Arab claim that the continued existence of the set-tlements makes it impossible for the Palestinian to create a state of their own.
THE REAL PALESTINIAN GOAL: DESTROYING ISRAEL
Before the Trump administration, the Palestinian strategy had worked. Their advocates in the diplomatic community pressured previous American presidents to twist the arms of Israeli leaders, forcing them to give in to the unyielding Palestinian demands, which grew steadily larger as the Israelis retreated. The goal never was Palestinian statehood, but rather forcing Is-rael to weaken itself by making concessions that would ultimately have suicidal consequences for its security and Jewish identity.
In 2009, after newly elected Prime Minister Netanyahu promised to take a tougher negotiating position, Palestinian leaders developed a new strategy for achieving their goals without trying to reach a peace agreement with Israel. They effectively abandoned the Oslo peace process in favor of an attempt to undermine Israel’s legitimacy through legal and diplomatic means. Ab-bas sought recognition of Palestinian statehood from the United Nations and condemnation of Israel on the basis of false accusations by such international bodies as UNESCO and the ICC, as well as the BDS movement. The Obama administration reacted to the Palestinian abandonment of the Oslo process by issuing weak verbal protests, while at the same time publicly criticizing Israeli government policies in Yerushalayim and the West Bank. Obama also made no secret of his strong personal dislike for Prime Minister Netanyahu, especially after Bibi began speaking out against the Iran nuclear deal.
TRUMP ELIMINATES THE EXCUSES FOR NOT MAKING PEACE
White House tolerance of Palestinian obstructionism ended when Donald Trump took office. He recognized the rigid Palestinian demands for what they were, excuses to avoid making the compromises necessary to resolve the most contentious issues standing in the way of meaning-ful progress toward a peace agreement since the Camp David summit 18 years ago.
The dispute over the legal status of Yerushalayim was frozen by obsolete concepts dating back to the November 29, 1947, partition plan adopted by the UN General Assembly. It called for the creation of a neutral international zone called a Corpus Separatum to protect Yerushalayim and its holy places, while dividing up the rest of the British Mandate of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Israel’s Zionist leadership accepted the plan, but the surrounding Arab states re-jected it. They declared war and invaded the Jewish country on the day it declared its independ-ence, May 14, 1948.
Yerushalayim became a battlefield. When the smoke cleared, it was left a divided city, with the Jordanian army in control of the Old City and the eastern suburbs, from which all of the Jewish residents had been forcibly removed. The Israeli army was in control of the newer western part of the city. In the middle were barbed-wire barricades delineating a UN-supervised no-man’s land.
THE STATE DEPARTMENT BLOCKED AGREEMENT ON YERUSHALAYIM
The UN-sponsored 1949 armistice agreement which ended the fighting established the ceasefire lines as Israel’s international borders, but the legal status of Yerushalayim was never resolved. The Israeli Knesset quickly declared western Yerushalayim to be the capital of its new state, but the US State Department refused to officially recognize it as Israel’s capital or even as sov-ereign Israeli territory for fear of antagonizing the Arab states.
The US refusal to recognize Israel’s sovereignty in any part of the city continued even after the Israeli army conquered and physically reunited it during the 1967 Six Day War. Even an act of Congress signed into law in 1995 declaring Yerushalayim to be Israel’s capital and ordering the State Department to move its embassy there from Tel Aviv was resisted by the State Depart-ment. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, each of whom had campaigned on a promise to Jewish voters to move the embassy, went back on their words once they were in the office, leaving the city’s diplomatic status in limbo.
Trump was right to ignore warnings from across the diplomatic community and US allies of a major reaction from the Arab world against his recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital, and moving the US embassy there. That fear, which deterred three previous presidents from making the move, never materialized. A number of pro-US Arab leaders, as well as the Arab League, initially voiced their objections. But in the end, US relations with its Arab allies did not suffer significantly.
In part, that is because Israel is now part of an informal regional defense alliance of Sunni Mus-lim states to contain the growing menace from Iran and its Shiite terrorist allies.
Ambassador Friedman noted that, “the United States did not make Yerushalayim the capital of Israel. That was done by King David some 3,000 years ago under Hashem’s direction. But, I hope you will agree with me that it feels awfully good that for the first time in 2,000 years since churban Bayis Sheni – the destruction of the Second Temple – the most powerful and moral nation on earth has made this important recognition of the primacy of Yerushalayim to Israel and the Jewish people.”
Israel’s intelligence minister, Yisroel Katz, says that Trump’s recent moves “reach the roots of the conflict and tell Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that he cannot continue his double-talk. Trump is peeling the Palestinian lie like an onion – layer by layer. They are teaching their children that ‘big Palestine’ is from the Jordan River to the sea. Trump says: ‘If you want to sit and negotiate, do it from a realistic place – Yerushalayim is the capital of Israel, and there is no right of return,’” Katz said.
HOW UNRWA HAS PERPETUATED THE CONFLICT
Another obstacle to any effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was UNRWA. Unlike UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), UNRWA was designed to perpetuate the plight of the Palestinian refugees rather than peacefully resolve it. The original refugees and their de-scendants were prevented from being permanently resettled as citizens in the Arab countries which hosted the refugee camps in which they were forced to live. They were therefore almost totally dependent on UNRWA humanitarian aid and education, funded mostly by contributions from non-Arab states. UNRWA’s policy of granting all the descendants of the original refugees automatic refugee status guaranteed that the problem would become progressively larger over time and more difficult to resolve.
The original 750,000 1948 Arab refugees have grown to 5.3 million people who are receiving UNRWA aid today, most of them still living in 59 refugee camps located in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA’s insistence that the goal was for all of them to be permanently resettled in Israel was a formula for the country’s destruction.
Raised on a steady diet of hatred for Israel, many of today’s “refugees” still expect to return to the homes their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents abandoned in 1948. They would instantly become a fifth column, undermining Israel’s security and character as a Jewish demo-cratic state. Israel’s leaders could never agree to accept them. Yet at the same time, the contin-ued statelessness of so many refugees makes it almost impossible for any Palestinian leader and other leaders of the Arab world to accept a peace agreement with Israel that does not meet their impossible demand for a right of return.
When it became clear to President Trump that the Palestinians were avoiding serious negotia-tions with Israel based partly on their impossible demands regarding the status of Yerushalayim and the artificially inflated Palestinian refugee problem, he decided that the best way to force them back to the table was by eliminating these excuses.
KUSHNER SAYS THE US IS NOW “DOING THE RIGHT THING”
Jared Kushner said he believes that Trump’s dramatic moves to help resolve Yerushalayim’s status and the future of Palestinian refugees improved the chances to reach a peacemaking breakthrough.
“There were too many false realities that were created — that people worship — that I think needed to be changed,” Kushner said in an interview with the New York Times. “All we’re doing is dealing with things as we see them and not being scared out of doing the right thing. I think, as a result, you have a much higher chance of actually achieving a real peace.”
Kushner insisted that the current differences between the US and the PA are not unbridgeable. “In every negotiation I’ve ever been in,” Kushner said, “before somebody gets to ‘yes,’ their answer is ‘no.’” But he added that “Nobody is entitled to America’s foreign aid, [and] Palestin-ian leaders deserve to lose American aid because they vilify the [US] government.”
He also warned that if the Palestinians continue to boycott negotiations, they will face addi-tional sanctions and find themselves at a further disadvantage when negotiations do resume.
Kushner explained that at this point, “No one else in the world buys the Palestinian claim of being a victim in this process. Today everyone knows that the Palestinian Authority is just an-other terrorist group who now has to show the world otherwise.” Trump’s son-in-law added that he was confident that Abbas will give the long-awaited peace plan Kushner’s team has devel-oped carefully consideration after it is eventually released.
ELIMINATING THE MAIN OBSTACLES
US officials insist that Trump’s recognition of Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital and the move of the embassy does not foreclose negotiations over other aspects of the city’s status. On the con-trary, by establishing the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to the city, Trump has put both sides on the same moral level. Hopefully, that will make it possible for Israeli and Palestinian negotia-tors reach a practical agreement that protects the rights of the city’s Arab and Jewish residents and enables them to share access to its holy sites peaceably and equitably.
Similarly, administration officials argue that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem lies in cutting down the number of refugees eligible for humanitarian services to a more realis-tic size by applying the standards used by the UNHCR for all other groups of refugees. They suggest that some of the UNRWA budget, which is about $1.2 billion a year, should be used to fund the permanent resettlement of the current occupants of the refugee camps across the re-gion in host countries willing to absorb them into their populations. The job of providing hu-manitarian aid for the remaining occupants of the Palestinian camps, along with their fair share of the UNRWA budget, should be assigned to UNHCR, which has proven its dedication to solv-ing the problems of refugees rather than perpetuating them. At that point, Israel and the Pales-tinians should be able to reach an equitable arrangement to take care of the remainder, an esti-mated 20,000 to 30,000 elderly Arabs who are the only legitimate Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war who are still alive.
Ambassador Friedman also sought to downplay fears raised by Trump’s recent comment that Israel might have to pay “a higher price” in future talks with the Palestinians because of his de-cision to move the US embassy to Yerushalayim. In a conference call with US Jewish leaders, Friedman explained, “The president feels that if the parties are lucky enough to be sitting in a room and making progress, he might say to the Israelis, ‘Look, can you do a little bit more? Look what we did for you. Is there something more that you could do?’ It’s not that he has something specific in mind, but just that under the circumstances that the United States has en-gaged in really significant good faith efforts to strengthen Israel and strengthen its historical multi-thousand-year connection to Yerushalayim, maybe the Israelis could make it clear by leaning in a little bit as well. That’s all it meant.”
The ambassador added, “I was there when the [embassy relocation] decision was made. I was there watching it and advocating for it in real time. There is not and there never was any de-mand made of Israel that they do anything in exchange for the embassy move.”
NEW SANCTIONS ON IRAN STARTING TO SHOW RESULTS
Friedman also spoke optimistically about the effectiveness of the renewed US sanctions on Iran. “Thanks to the courageous and historic decision of President Trump to exit the Iran nucle-ar deal, we’re beginning to see encouraging signs that the Iranian enterprise, the world’s princi-pal state sponsor of terrorism and an enemy that publicly vows to destroy the State of Israel, is under extraordinary pressure. Is it defeated? Most certainly not yet. But with every new day there’s a growing basis for optimism. The pressure on Iran will continue to mount, and I am confident that this enemy – the great challenge of our generation – will enter the dustbin of his-tory among the other evildoers who have threatened the US and Israel in the past.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a statement declaring that, “Israel supports American actions that are designed to make it clear to the Palestinians that refusing to negotiate and attempts to attack Israel in international forums will not advance peace.”
Netanyahu also supports the deep cuts Trump is making in US aid to the Palestinians, even though Israel may have to assume responsibility for maintaining a decent living conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank. Israeli media reports said that some of Netanyahu’s senior mili-tary advisors were opposed to the cuts in US funding for fear they could lead to a rapid deterio-ration of living conditions and increased tensions, especially in Gaza. Netanyahu reportedly overruled those concerns, unilaterally announcing his full support for the US actions without consulting with his advisors.
THE PALESTINIAN VIEW
Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has warned in a newspaper interview that “In the end, it will be Israel to pay the price [for Trump’s funding cuts]. You will be the ones to pay the salaries of the Palestinian Authority’s clerks, you will underwrite the schools and roads and health clinics and hospitals and pay wages of the doctors and nurses. Your children will go back to chasing our children in refugee camps.”
He added, “Israel is a rich country; it can take it. For the past 24 years, Israel has been using us. We are paying for all the services offered to the Palestinians. We maintain full security cooper-ation, while Israel expands the settlements, increase land expropriation and ruins our hope. If you [the US] don’t want to continue participating in [Palestinian] expenditures at the expense of the tax-paying Americans, you are entitled to do so. That is your decision. But at the same time, you cannot continue to disinherit us, to banish our hopes, our dreams. By doing so, you ruin the moderate camp within the Palestinian people.”
Erekat placed the blame for the current crisis in US-PA relations on Trump and his two Middle East envoys, and accused them of conducting an offensive campaign against the Palestinian people. “From the very beginning, I asked Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt to set up a meet-ing for me with my Israeli counterparts. They refused. I asked them to let us conduct direct ne-gotiations. They refused.
“On May 3, 2017, I received a personal promise from President Trump in the White House. He told me that he would allot one year to the peace process, and afterward, any of the parties that torpedoes the peace process would pay the price. ‘There will be severe repercussions for that,’ he said, and I smiled. When he asked me why I was smiling, I told him that it’s the first time an American president threatens that Israel will be held responsible and subject to severe conse-quences.”
Erekat claims that Trump himself broke that promise by recognizing Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital six months later. He traces the breakdown in US-Palestinian relations to a conversation he had with Kushner at the White House in November, who told him that President Trump would not sign another six-month waiver to delay implementation of the 1995 law requiring the move of the US embassy to Yerushalayim.
When Erekat asked Kushner if that meant that the administration was planning to recognizing Yerushalayim as the capital of Israel, he said the president’s son-in-law avoided giving him a direct answer, saying only that the decision would be based on American interests and policies. When Erekat responded by warning that such a move would make it impossible for the US to continue serving as honest broker in the peace process, Kushner replied, bluntly, “Don’t threat-en us.”
ABBAS AT A CROSSROADS
Erekat, who is the secretary-general of the PLO, predicted that Abbas will make a dramatic an-nouncement at the PLO’s Executive Committee on September 27. “President Mahmoud Abbas has two choices: He can either fight for his honor and his legacy, or he will be thrown by the Palestinian people from his office. . .
“Abbas will have to come up with the merchandise. . . I tell you that if he doesn’t deliver by the end of the committee’s session, I will submit my resignation. I intend to fight for my honor and my dignity. I am a man of peace. I am familiar with Israel. I have always opposed terror and violence and I will keep opposing them. But that doesn’t mean that I’m willing to become Isra-el’s collaborator or Trump’s collaborator.”
Erekat complained that Trump’s moves to punish the Palestinians for their refusal to cooperate with his peacemaking initiative are inexcusable. “You can take it out on Abbas, you can take it out on me, but why harm simple citizens, their hospitals, clinics, welfare centers? That is simp-ly unprecedented. And what’s going on in Israel? Nothing. You are deaf, dumb and blind, com-pletely disinterested.”
But Ambassador Friedman cast doubt on the sincerity of the concern by Erekat and other PA leaders for the welfare of Palestinians, at least those now living in Gaza under Hamas rule. Friedman said that if Abbas really cared about them, he would not have cut the salaries to PA public servants living in Gaza, or refused to pay Israel for the electric power it provides for Ga-za’s residents, leading to lengthy daily blackouts which contribute to their misery.
ABBAS’ OLD STRATEGY NO LONGER WORKS
Over the years, whenever the US or Israel would threaten serious consequences in response to a provocative Palestinian move, Abbas would throw a public tantrum. He would threaten to close down the Palestinian Authority, making Israel responsible for taking care of the Palestinians living in the West Bank, or end the close cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces which has kept the West Bank relatively calm and Abbas in power for more than a dec-ade. The tactic almost always worked. The US and Israel would back off, and the flow of US taxpayer dollars would continue to fund corrupt and inefficient UN and PA programs, enriching Abbas and his cronies.
Even more infuriating, a signification fraction of the generous donations of US and internation-al aid to the PA, intended for urgently needed economic development and infrastructure pro-jects, is being diverted to the Palestine Martyrs Fund. Despite strong objections by the US and Israeli governments, over the past two years, the fund has paid $750 million to convicted terror-ists in Israeli prisons and their families whom the Abbas celebrates as the “heroes” of the Pal-estinian people.
But the PA’s strategy isn’t working anymore. Trump is finally calling Abbas’ bluff.
The Palestinians are accusing the Trump administration of abandoning the traditional even-handed US peacemaking stance and taking Israel’s side. The PA invited friendly European powers to serve as the new Middle East peace brokers, but the Israeli government refuses to accept them as a substitute for the US in that role. PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki asked the delegates attending the latest Arab League summit in Cairo to launch an anti-Trump cam-paign in all international forums, but received no significant response. The Arab countries are more concerned about the end results of the civil war in Syria, and the ongoing confrontation between Iran and its Shiite allies and the Saudi-led alliance of Sunni states which are fighting a nasty proxy war in Yemen.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PEACE WITH GAZA
In addition, Egypt, which is a historic ally of the Palestinians in their dealings with Israel, is furious with Abbas for blocking a ceasefire deal it has been brokering between Israel and Ha-mas. White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt said, “The Trump administration strongly supports the efforts of President Al Sisi and the Egyptian government to help facilitate an agreement to restore calm in Gaza and bring about the conditions for the Palestinian Author-ity to fully assume its responsibilities in Gaza.
“The Palestinian Authority cannot criticize from the sidelines. The Palestinian Authority should be part of the solution for the Palestinians of Gaza and Palestinians as a whole. If not, others [presumably Hamas] will fill that void. Leadership is about making hard choices.
“The people of Gaza, and Israelis in the area around Gaza, have suffered for far too long. It is time for the Palestinian Authority to lead the Palestinian people – all Palestinians – to a better future.”
In a telephone briefing to the American Jewish Congress, Ambassador Friedman agreed that Israel cannot have “peace with the Palestinians unless there’s peace with all the Palestinians, including the million and a half in Gaza,” and that will require a reconciliation between the PA and Hamas over who rules Gaza. “There should be ideally one (Palestinian) government … If you go around the PA and somehow try to restructure Gaza without them, you’re giving a tre-mendous prize to Hamas.”
Abbas, in this case, agrees with the US ambassador. He has said that any ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas alone would only happen “over my dead body. If the agreement is signed without the PA’s permission, it is illegal and constitutes treason.”
PA officials continue to boycott meetings with Trump’s peacemaking team. Abbas has report-edly told his aides that he would turn down another invitation to meet with Trump himself, as long as Kushner and Greenblatt are still leading the US negotiating effort.
Greenblatt recently made headlines by debunking as a “myth” a report in the Israeli business publication Globes that he and Kushner had offered Abbas $5 billion in American aid to end the PA boycott of negotiations and break the peacemaking stalemate. Greenblatt tweeted, “When the peace plan is released, if the PA is serious about peace and wants to improve Palestinian lives, the PA should want to review the plan and engage. It is an absurd idea to pay $5 billion for a party to ‘return to the negotiating table.’ How would that accomplish peace?”
A frustrated PA official admitted to reporters that Abbas has no effective strategy or allies to help him counter Trump’s new policies. “Our toolbox is empty, we have to keep our heads down and wait [until Trump is out of office].” But Abbas is old and sick. He is 82 years old, and unlikely to survive another two or six years in power in order to make a deal with Trump’s successor as US president on more favorable terms.