Following a cordial meeting last week between President Trump and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the White House confirmed that Trump will spend two days in Israel during his first foreign trip since taking office. In his joint statement with Abbas, Trump said that he is “committed to working with Israel and the Palestinians to reach an agreement,” and made it clear that he would love to act as “a mediator or an arbitrator” in the negotiations. Trump also emphasized that “any agreement cannot be imposed by the United States or by any other nation. The Palestinians and Israelis must work together to reach an agreement that allows both peoples to live, worship, and thrive and prosper in peace.”
However, aside from Trump’s willingness to become personally involved, nothing of substance came out of the White House meeting on May 3 with Abbas to indicate movement toward an agreement.
Abbas said he looked forward to working with Trump in order to “come to that deal, to that historical agreement to bring about peace.” But he then repeated the familiar Palestinian demands for Israeli concessions without any hint of a willingness to compromise, concluding, “it’s about time for Israel to end its occupation of our people and our land.”
Trump applauded the cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces to keep the peace in the West Bank and cited it as grounds for optimism.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer later told reporters that Trump believes his personal skills as a master negotiator will eventually enable him to succeed in achieving the permanent peace deal which has eluded his predecessors over the past 24 years, but Spicer refused to divulge any details about the White House’s position in the anticipated negotiations.
TRUMP FAILED TO PRESS ABBAS ON PAYMENTS TO TERRORISTS
In his public remarks to Abbas, Trump noted that “there cannot be lasting peace unless the Palestinian leaders speak in a unified voice against incitement to violence and hate.” The statement came in the context of legislation working its way through Congress which would slash U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if it does not halt its practice of making lucrative payments to terrorists and their family members.
Republicans sponsoring the bill had hoped Trump would make public mention of the payments to put pressure on Abbas to stop them. But the Trump White House was reluctant to put Abbas on the spot over the payments, which are vigorously supported by him and other Palestinian leaders. Spicer reported that Trump did raise objections to the payments with Abbas in later, private discussions, but did not press him on the issue.
Just before their meeting, the PA’s commissioner of prisoner affairs, Issa Karake, announced Abbas’ “absolute refusal to heed Israeli demands to stop the allowances for the families of the prisoners and martyrs and emphasized his support for the payments.”
NETANYAHU PUBLICLY CALLS ABBAS A LIAR
Abbas told Trump in front of White House reporters, “Mr. President, I affirm to you that we are raising our youth, our children, our grandchildren on a culture of peace. And we are endeavoring to bring about security, freedom and peace for our children to live like the other children in the world, along with the Israeli children in peace, freedom and security.” But the next day, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called Abbas a liar on that point.
“I heard President Abbas yesterday say that they teach their children peace,” Netanyahu said. “That’s unfortunately not true. They name their schools after mass murderers of Israelis and they pay terrorists.”
According to Israeli monitors at Palestinian Media Watch, during the weeks leading up to Abbas’ White House visit, the official PA media continued without letup its constant incitement to violence against Israel, holding up terrorists as role models and heroes.
Trump has frequently criticized Palestinians for their long history of incitement. In his campaign speech to AIPAC last year, for example, Trump said:
“In Palestinian textbooks and mosques, you’ve got a culture of hatred that has been fomenting there for years. And if we want to achieve peace, they’ve got to go out and they’ve got to start this educational process. They have to end education of hatred.”
Netanyahu did not reject Trump’s efforts to restart negotiations. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who frequently serves as his spokesperson on foreign relation, made it clear that Israel does not have any faith in Abbas’ sincerity as a negotiating partner.
“Abbas arrived in Washington as he continues to transfer money to the families of terrorists. It’s clear to anyone who is intelligent that Abbas isn’t interested in peace,” Hotovely said, and cited the incitement against Israel in Palestinian textbooks for its schoolchildren as further proof of Abbas’ insincerity.
She also denied Abbas’s characterization of Israel as an occupier. “Israel isn’t an occupier in its land. We have been deeply rooted to our land for 3,000 years and we will continue to settle the land,” Hotovely declared.
UPBEAT WHITE HOUSE REPORTS ON A WORKING LUNCH
After their public remarks in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Abbas and Trump met over a working lunch with other administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Trump economic advisor Gary Cohn. The White House later issued a mostly upbeat description of the discussion.
After the lunch, Trump told reporters, “Let’s see if we can find the solution. It’s something that I think is, frankly, maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years. We need two willing parties. We believe Israel is willing. We believe you’re willing.”
Privately, White House officials are taking a much more sanguine attitude towards the peacemaking effort. They realize that nobody familiar with the region expects Trump’s negotiating efforts to succeed, which is why he and his advisors believe that he has very little to lose by trying.
On the other hand, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians want to be blamed for what both sides expect to be yet another peacemaking failure.
Palestinian-American analyst Yousef Munayyer told the Washington-based Middle East newspaper Al-Monitor, “None of the players expects this White House is going to get this done. . .
“The real wild card is Trump and his personality, and nobody knows how that is going to work out. Trump is a businessperson. He approaches the deal in a way that many businesspeople do. If you are serious, we can find a mutually beneficial deal and get this thing done.
“But if he finds that his negotiating counterparts are not negotiating in good faith and are dragging up reason after reason not to move forward, I don’t think Trump will have patience for that,” Munayyer said.
TRUMP’S FIRST STOP IN SAUDI ARABIA
The meeting with Abbas followed White House visits by the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who encouraged Trump to try his hand at Middle East peacemaking during his upcoming visit to the region.
Trump will leave Washington on May 19 and stop first in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There he will meet with the king of Saudi Arabia, the members of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council and various other Arab diplomats to discuss a range of regional security issues, including the war against ISIS and support for his efforts to revive the peace process. The White House is expecting a friendly welcome for the president there because of Trump’s tough rhetoric against Iran and his bold action against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir expressed appreciation that Trump had chosen his country as his first foreign stop. He also had kind words for Trump’s “fresh approach” to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but stopped short of suggesting that the president’s visit would lead to a diplomatic breakthrough.
TRUMP’S SCHEDULE IN ISRAEL
Trump will arrive at Ben Gurion Airport on Monday morning, May, 22, to be greeted by Netanyahu and Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, followed by a round of meetings with Israeli leaders. His itinerary in Israel is said to include visits to the Kosel, Yad Vashem, the Knesset and Masada. Israel will mobilize 10,000 police to provide security during his visit. He is expected to travel inside Israel largely by helicopter, but if weather conditions do not permit that, authorities are prepared to clear the main Tel Aviv-Yerushalayim Highway 1 for his motorcade to arrive in Yerushalayim. He and his entourage will be staying at the King David hotel, which will be emptied of any other guests while the American leaders are there.
The next day, Trump will leave for Rome for a meeting with the Pope.
He will attend a high-level meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on May 24 and the G7 economic summit in Sicily on May 26 before returning to Washington.
DRAWING CONTRASTS TO OBAMA’S FIRST MIDDLE EAST TRIP
Trump emphasized that he will meet with Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders during his trip, in contrast to Barack Obama, who snubbed Israel during his first visit to the region as president in June 2009, while emphasizing his outreach to the Muslim world.
Martin Indyk, who worked with former Secretary of State John Kerry to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, contrasted Trump’s diplomatic style to that of his predecessor. “Obama’s approach was to build support with the Arab public through his Cairo speech. Trump’s approach is to deal with the Arab leaders, not speak to their people, which is much more comfortable for the leaders,” Indyk said.
Trump said he hopes his visit will send a more even-handed message that “tolerance is a cornerstone of peace,” and demonstrate his support for Israel, as well as his desire to improve his relations with the head of the Catholic Church and America’s NATO allies. Trump said one of his goals will be “to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries.”
“Our task is not to dictate to others how to live, but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism,” the president added.
Observers were watching closely for any sign of favoritism toward either side by the Trump White House during Abbas’ visit, and some thought they had found it. Within hours of the visit, Trump tweeted that it had been “an honor” for him to host Abbas, and, “Hopefully something terrific [will result] between the Palestinians & Israel.” But within 24 hours, the statement disappeared from Trump’s Twitter feed. There was no explanation from the White House, which insisted that it would stand by the original message in the Tweet. That left both sides still wondering whether Trump was having second thoughts about feeling “honored” by Abbas’ visit.
WORKING AT CROSSED PURPOSES
Each side is eager to cooperate with the White House for the time being for its own reasons. Netanyahu needs to show that he can build a strong, positive personal relationship with Trump after his disastrous encounters with Obama. He has been willing to go along with White House requests for restraint in settlement building while Trump attempts to restart peace negotiations, but only because he expects to get fuller support from the White House when that attempt fails.
Abbas has been willing to cooperate because he hasn’t yet been pressured by Trump to agree to any serious compromises with Israel. Meanwhile, Abbas is reaping the political benefit from the attention he got from the White House as he competes for support with the new Hamas leadership in Gaza.
Middle East analyst Grant Rumley of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies says, “Trump wants the deal that has never been done. Abbas want the process, the platform, the stage. No one at home can challenge his relevancy or legitimacy if [Abbas is] in the Rose Garden … if he is meeting with Tillerson in Europe. For [Abbas], negotiations are a domestic track.”
But ultimately, Rumley believes that because Abbas isn’t ready to make any of the compromises necessary to finalize a deal, Abbas and Trump “are likely destined to clash; [it is] just a question of how soon that comes about.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri immediately challenged Abbas’ right to speak at the White House on behalf of the Palestinians, and challenged Abbas’ statement that all of the issues with Israel can be resolved through negotiations.
“No one authorized Mahmoud Abbas to represent the Palestinian people, and everything that he issued in terms of positions are not binding. These national Palestinian rights belong to the Palestinian people, and no one has the right to relinquish them,” the Hamas spokesman said in a statement.
NETANYAHU OFFERED SUPPORT FROM THE ISRAELI LEFT
Netanyahu’s ability to make the kind of compromises that would be necessary to make a deal is limited by his domestic political considerations, namely the objections of his right-wing coalition partners to any serious effort to revive peace talks with Abbas. They were disappointed that Netanyahu did not announce Israel’s annexation of the West Bank immediately after Trump was elected. They are growing suspicious of Trump’s intentions after initially celebrating his election as ensuring the death of the two-state solution.
At a forum last week sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, Knesset opposition leader Yitzchok Herzog said he is willing to offer Netanyahu a parliamentary safety net for his government if he would be willing to make the concessions to cut a peace deal with Abbas. He told the Jerusalem Post that he remains skeptical of Netanyahu’s intentions.
“So far, Trump’s peace efforts have been impeccable,” Herzog said. “We know what Trump wants. What Netanyahu wants, no one knows. I have grave doubts about Bibi’s intentions.
“If he wants peace, he will enjoy political support even from my camp. But if he opts for what Bibi usually wants, he will find us a fierce opposition and we will replace him as soon as possible.”
Herzog would prefer to oust Netanyahu from power and see him replaced by a new, centrist coalition made up of former military leaders, headed by former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and others who have become disillusioned with Netanyahu’s leadership. However, neither Ya’alon nor any other current Israeli politician is seen by most voters as capable of replacing Netanyahu.
Anticipation has faded that Netanyahu will be forced to step down due to a pair of police investigations for corruption against him or the divisions within his coalition. The only things likely to shake up the current Israeli political alignment before the elections scheduled for 2019 would be a Trump-negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians which Netanyahu’s right wing partners would surely reject, or an indictment on the corruption charges currently being investigated.
TRUMP REPORTEDLY TORN BETWEEN TWO JEWISH SUPPORTERS
According to a New York Times report, World Jewish Conference president Ronald Lauder told Israeli ministers Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Ofir Akunis that Trump had convinced Abbas to make the necessary concessions for a peace deal with Israel.
Veteran Middle East analysts are deeply skeptical that Abbas would ever actually go through with such concessions, but Lauder and other supporters of the moribund peace process very much want to believe that he would.
The Times reported that Trump is caught between two friends and generous donors giving him opposite advice on how to go forward with Israel and the Palestinians. Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, has been encouraging Trump to pursue his peace initiative, while Sheldon Adelson, who gave Donald Trump’s presidential campaign $125 million, wants to see Trump carry out his campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Yerushalayim and support Netanyahu’s skeptical approach to the two-state solution.
Lauder has reportedly been working to turn Trump against Netanyahu and is a harsh critic of Adelson’s hawkish views on Israeli policy, but that is an oversimplification of the reality.
A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP
While Netanyahu and Lauder have sometimes disagreed publicly over Israeli policy, the two have a long personal relationship, and Lauder has historically been a supporter of the Likud. During Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, he called upon Lauder to serve as his envoy in secret peace negotiations with the Syrian government.
Previously, Lauder served for more than a year as Ronald Reagan’s U.S. Ambassador to Austria. His family foundation has been a major donor to efforts to rebuild Jewish communities in 15 Central and Eastern European countries. He has been an outspoken critic of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, and is a major supporter of the Jewish National Fund. In 1989, Lauder lost to Rudy Giuliani in the New York Republican mayoral primary.
After Netanyahu made his speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009 in which he publicly accepted the two-state solution for the first time, Lauder took out full page newspaper ads praising the statement and urging Abbas to accept Netanyahu’s offer to negotiate with no pre-conditions.
Lauder and Adelson have made significant investments in Israel. Adelson, who first made his fortune as a Las Vegas casino magnate, founded Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, which is known for its support for Netanyahu. Lauder is a major investor in Israel’s TV Channel 10.
Adelson was also the primary donor to Newt Gingrich’s 2012 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, based upon Gingrich’s outspoken pro-Israel policies, and later donated generously to Mitt Romney’s losing campaign.
Adelson has reportedly contributed $140 million to help subsidize Birthright Israel trips for American Jewish college students and $25 million to Yad Vashem.
Lauder and his family, which made its fortune in the cosmetics business, have a personal friendship with Trump going back decades in New York society. While Adelson does not have Lauder’s personal access to Trump, the president’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is reportedly advocating for Adelson’s pessimistic view about the chances for launching a successful new negotiating effort with the Palestinians.
MORE FAKE NEWS?
The Times report about warring factions within the Trump administration over whether he should attempt to revive peace negotiations now should be taken with a grain of salt. The New York Times’ open hostility towards Trump, Netanyahu and Israeli policy towards the Palestinians extends well beyond the editorial page and colors its news coverage.
The Times reported that an “advisor” to Lauder denied to them that he was pushing for a deal with Abbas, and described Lauder as merely being “optimistic” over the opportunity for negotiations. The same story claimed that Adelson was frustrated when Trump reneged on his promise to order the move of the embassy on the first day of his presidency, but that his attitude toward Trump improved when he did not protest Netanyahu’s decision to build a replacement on the West Bank for the settlement of Amona.
Trump said during his presidential campaign that he had to adopt a certain neutrality if he ever hoped to negotiate a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. He has been cautious as president to keep that option open, while also making it clear that he has a respect and personal affinity for Netanyahu, in sharp contrast to Obama’s open dislike for the prime minister. Since Trump took office, U.S. diplomatic support for Israel at the U.N. has never been stronger. While publicly calling for restraint, the Trump White House has been far more tolerant of Israel’s West Bank construction policies than the Obama administration was.
TRUMP’S SILENT ENVOY
Trump’s loyal former in-house lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, has been kept busy as Trump’s personal envoy to the region, negotiating with Israel over voluntary limitations to its settlement policy while gathering information from Arab leaders and foreign policy experts about the feasibility of a new Trump-led peace initiative.
Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew who once studied in a West Bank yeshiva, traveled to the Middle East to work out a tacit arrangement with Netanyahu on the parameters for continued West Bank settlement construction. The result was very similar to the agreement which President George W. Bush reached with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, under which Israel agreed to keep new construction within existing settlement boundaries. Greenblatt also met Abbas and other Arab leaders in the region to sample their opinion on whether a renewed U.S. negotiating push is warranted at this time.
Greenblatt has faithfully carried out his presidential mission, talking with and listening to all of the interested parties on both sides except media reporters.
Greenblatt’s behind the scenes diplomatic role continued through Abbas’ visit to the U.S. last week. He attended a dinner given by Lauder in his Washington, D.C. home in Abbas’ honor the night before the Palestinian leader met with Trump at the White House.
Greenblatt also attended a meeting last week with prominent Palestinian leaders Salam Fayyad and Ziad Asali, and former U.S. diplomats Dennis Ross and Elliot Abrams. Fayyad, a Western trained banker, had served as the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and watchdog over the transparency of its budget, but was eventually pushed aside by Abbas. Ross was a longtime Middle East envoy for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Abrams served in the State Department under Ronald Reagan and played a key role as a special assistant to President George W. Bush in shaping U.S. relations with Israel.
Both the U.S. and Palestinian advisors told Greenblatt that a breakthrough in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is simply not feasible because of the current unsettled conditions in the region in addition to the political challenges now facing Netanyahu and Abbas. Their advice was that Trump’s efforts would be best invested in trying to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinians living in the West Bank to preserve chances for a peace deal at some later date.
TRUMP SEEN AS FRIENDLY BUT UNCERTAIN
Ross told the New York Times, “There is a perception that [Trump’s] fundamentally sympathetic [to Israel], but there is an uncertainty about where he wants to go. Among those who think there is no such thing as a deal, or that Israel is being asked to make troubling concessions, there is unease.”
But even those who have expressed disappointed with Trump’s failure to fully meet their expectations so far agree that he is far more supportive of Israel’s position with regard to the Palestinians than Obama ever was, and that the atmosphere of the U.S.-Israel relationship is much improved. Few supporters of Israel would dispute the claim by Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, that Trump has “done more in just 100 days than Barack Obama ever did in transforming the U.S.-Israel relationship into a U.S.-Israel partnership.”
Noah Pollak, a Republican strategist who works for pro-settlement groups, predicted that Trump will eventually back off when he realizes that nothing has changed since the last round of U.S.-sponsored peace talks failed in 2014, and that the two sides are still too far apart to reach a deal.
“The administration is likely to discover what its predecessors learned: that there is no deal to be had right now because the parties have unbridgeable positions on most of the issues,” Pollak said, but noted one important difference.
“Obama used the impasse as a way to condemn Israel. We’re not worried Trump will follow suit. We simply hope the process of the administration proving to itself that no deal is possible will be quick and undramatic.”
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A PRO-ISRAEL GESTURE
Nobody is expecting that Trump will be able to make any breakthroughs during his visit to the region later this month, but the timing of his visit will give him an opportunity to make a gesture to reassure supporters of Israel who are worried about his intentions. He will be leaving Israel on the eve of Yom Yerushalayim, the 50th anniversary of Israel’s reunification of the city during the 1967 Six Day War. A few days later, at the start of June, Obama’s last waiver of the 1995 law requiring the State Department to move its embassy to Yerushalayim will expire. That will force Trump, either by his action or inaction, to signal to the world whether he intends to keep that campaign promise, and whose side he is on in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the city’s diplomatic and legal status.
TROUBLE BREWING IN GAZA
Meanwhile, there is growing concern by experts in the region about the political power struggle now going on in Gaza, where a new generation of Hamas leaders has taken over. Yahya Sinwar is the new Hamas ruler in Gaza. His predecessor, former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, has been chosen to replace the longtime international political head of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, who has been living in the comfort of exile in a luxury hotel in Qatar.
In a belated effort to clean up its international reputation as a terrorist organization, the new Hamas leadership announced a revised policy document indicating its willingness to accept the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank within the pre-1967 borders and rescinding its frequent calls for Israel’s annihilation. The report was hailed by The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian and other pro-Palestinian media outlets as a sign of moderation of Hamas’ views towards Israel. Unfortunately, Hamas remains as determined as ever to destroy Israel, only now it proposes to do so in stages, with the creation of a Palestinian state as the first step. The new Hamas document also reaffirmed its promise to support military action against Israel.
TRUMP AND NETANYAHU CONDEMN HAMAS’ PLOY
President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted quickly, condemning the positive media reports about Hamas as more “fake news.”
In a video message, Netanyahu asked rhetorically, “Is moving from calling for genocide of all Jews to calling just for the annihilation of Israel, is that progress or moderation?
“The new Hamas document says Israel has no right to exist. It says every inch of our land belongs to the Palestinians. It says there is no acceptable solution other than to remove Israel. So why does Hamas say there is a consensus for a smaller Palestinian state now? In order to destroy Israel later. They want to use their state to destroy our state,” Netanyahu concluded.
“It’s bad enough Hamas lies to the world. We don’t also have to lie to ourselves.”
Netanyahu then added a final reminder. “Hamas murders women and children. It launched thousands of missile attacks at our homes. It brainwashes Palestinian kids in suicide kindergarten camps,” he said.
THE PEOPLE OF GAZA ARE LOSING HOPE
Gaza has never recovered from the physical destruction it suffered from the war with Israel during the summer of 2014. Hamas has continued to divert the construction material that Israel has allowed in for the purpose of rebuilding the large amount of civilian housing that was destroyed during the fighting. Instead, those materials are being used by Hamas to build new fortifications and terror tunnels in anticipation of the next round of fighting with Israel.
Israeli media reports say that the situation of ordinary people living in Gaza is becoming increasingly desperate. Times of Israel reporter Avi Issacharoff quotes a friend he has known for 17 years who lives in northern Gaza as telling him, “I have no food for my children. Believe me; you know that I don’t make things up. I have nothing to give them to eat. The situation here is so bad. I have no work; the [older] children have no work. And I see nothing on the horizon. As far as I’m concerned, it would be better if a war started already. Maybe then people will notice Gaza and pay attention to us. We have no life here anymore.”
Similar sentiments are being expressed to Israeli reporters by others living in Gaza, including businessmen, government officials, and supporters of both Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah party. The level of despair and hopelessness has become so explosive that any random incident could set off another round of fighting, whether the leaders of Hamas are ready for another war with Israel or not.
AN OLD PROBLEM GETTING WORSE
The quality of life in Gaza has fallen to a new low because of a chronic power shortage that has grown much worse since Gaza’s only electrical generator, producing 60 megawatts, stopped operating last month, because Hamas lacks the money to pay for its diesel fuel.
Even during the best of times, Gaza’s electrical service, supplied by power lines from Israel and Egypt and supplemented by the local generator, was unreliable and woefully insufficient to meet the demand. The Egyptian power lines are no longer functioning. As a result, Gaza residents are now suffering from rolling blackouts, getting no more than six hours of power at a time, followed by 12 hours with no service.
Israel has been supplying Gaza with 125 megawatts through ten power lines which were often damaged during outbreaks of fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. To pay for that electricity, Israel had been deducting $11 million monthly from the taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, under the terms of the Oslo Accords. However, before he left to meet with Trump in Washington, Abbas told Israel to stop taking the money out of the PA’s funds, leaving nobody to pay the electricity bill.
A STRUGGLE OVER POWER
The move is part of a larger effort by Abbas to squeeze the Gaza economy. He has also ordered a 30% cut in the pensions the PA still pays to its former civil servants living in Gaza. After meeting with Trump last week, Abbas issued a public warning that “things will be painful for Hamas.”
Palestinian political observers note that the damage to Gaza’ economy will also impact many followers of Abbas’ chief rival for power within his Fatah party, former PA Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, now living in exile.
The head of the PA’s Civil Affairs Department, Hussein al-Sheikh, told PA radio that it was unfair for it to keep paying Israel for the electricity it sends to Gaza because Hamas has been collecting the electricity payments made by Gaza residents.
Al-Sheikh admitted that the new PA policy was intended to “dry up Hamas’ financial resources,” but denied that it was intended to make the lives of Gaza residents even more miserable.
Hamas reacted to the PA’s refusal to pay for the Israeli power by accusing Abbas of siding with Israel in trying to punish Hamas. “Today, Abbas put himself in a confrontation with the Palestinian people,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said. “Its consequences will be catastrophic and disastrous, not only for Hamas, as they think, but for all Gazans.”
ABBAS PUT ISRAEL IN A NO-WIN SITUATION
Israel would be within its rights to stop supplying that power, but doing so would risk creating a serious humanitarian crisis for Gaza’s nearly 2 million residents. Hamas’ hospitals no longer have enough electrical power to fully service the needs of their patients. Gaza’s waste water treatment plants are also running at a reduced capacity for lack of power.
It was a clever move by Abbas, presenting Israel with a no-win choice. Regardless of the fact that the PA is responsible, Israel would undoubtedly be blamed by the international community for the dire humanitarian consequences of a shutdown of the Israeli power feed. But by waiving the charges for Gaza’s electricity, Israel would be subsidizing the Hamas terrorists. Israeli officials are continuing to supply the power for the time being, but they are pressuring the UNWRA relief agency and other interested parties, such as Qatar or another wealthy Arab state, to pay them to keep Gaza’s lights on.
A VOLATILE SITUATION
Hamas has begun publicly calling Abbas a traitor to the Palestinian people. Hamas supporters recently hanged an effigy of Abbas during a protest.
Hamas has also begun rounding up dozens of Fatah activists after they tried to organize a support rally in Gaza for Abbas under the cover of backing a two-week-old hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners’ in Israeli jails.
This is the volatile political situation surrounding Trump’s visit to the region later this month. Rather than boasting confidently about his ability to achieve a highly unlikely breakthrough in the deadlocked peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Trump would do better to lower his sights and count himself fortunate if he can avoid yet another outbreak of deadly fighting this summer in Gaza.