04 May 2017
WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump vowed Wednesday to work to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians as he hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House but offered no clues about how he could break the deadlock and revive stalled negotiations.
In their first face-to-face meeting, Trump pressed Palestinian leaders to “speak in a unified voice against incitement” to violence against Israelis but he stopped short of explicitly recommitting his administration to a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict, a long-standing bedrock of U.S. policy.
“We will get this done,” Trump told Abbas during a joint appearance at the White House, saying he was prepared to act a mediator, facilitator or arbitrator between the two sides.
Abbas quickly reasserted the goal of a Palestinian state as vital to any rejuvenated peace process, reiterating that it must have its capital in Jerusalem with borders based on pre-1967 lines. Israel rejects a full return to 1967 borders.
Trump faced deep skepticism at home and abroad over his chances for a breakthrough with Abbas, not least because the new U.S. administration has yet to articulate a cohesive strategy for restarting the moribund peace process.
Abbas’ White House talks follow a mid-February visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who moved quickly to reset ties after a frequently combative relationship with the Republican president’s predecessor, Democratic President Barack Obama.
Trump sparked international criticism at the time when he appeared to back away from support for a two-state solution, saying he would leave it up to the parties themselves to decide.
The meeting with Abbas was another test of whether Trump, in office a little more than 100 days, is serious about pursuing what he has called the “ultimate deal” of Israeli-Palestinian peace that eluded his predecessors. “I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is between the Israelis and the Palestinian,” Trump said Wednesday. “Let’s see if we can prove them wrong.”
But he did not offer any new policy prescriptions.
Abbas, speaking through a translator, told Trump that under “your courageous stewardship and your wisdom, as well as your great negotiations ability,” the Palestinians would be partners seeking a “historic peace treaty.”
The last round of U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed in 2014.
Abbas said “it’s about time for Israel to end its occupation of our people and our land” – a reference to Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank. Reaffirming his commitment to a two-state solution, he called on Israel to recognize Palestinian statehood. Though expectations are low for significant progress, plans are being firmed up for Trump to visit the right-wing Israeli leader in occupied Jerusalem and possibly Abbas in the West Bank, targeted for May 22-23, according to people familiar with the matter.
The administration seeks to enlist Arab countries to help rejuvenate Middle East peacemaking.
Abbas was under pressure at home to avoid making major concessions to Trump, especially with an ongoing hunger strike by several hundreds of Palestinian detainees held by Israel and led by prominent leader Marwan Barghouti.
Earlier Wednesday, thousands of Palestinians rallied in the West Bank city of Ramallah in a show of support for the Palestinians hunger strikers.
The detainees are demanding improved conditions including family visits, better medical care and phone access.
“I am addressing you from solitary confinement, among thousands of prisoners and on their behalf and among hundreds of prisoners who have decided to launch this hunger strike for freedom and dignity that will continue till their legitimate demands are met,” Barghouti wrote in a statement released Wednesday by the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Relatives have received no news about their loved ones and live in a state of “permanent anxiety,” says Mahmoud al-Ziadeh, whose son Majd has been in prison for 15 years.
Palestinian officials say it will be hard for Abbas to return to the negotiating table without a long-standing precondition of a freeze on Jewish settlement expansion on land Israel occupied in 1967 which Palestinians want for a state.
Abbas also makes an unlikely dealmaker. He made the trip to Washington while politically unpopular back home, with polls suggesting most Palestinians want him to resign.
Palestinians are watching closely, including Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who called on Trump to break with past approaches to Middle East peace.
“This is a historic opportunity to pressure Israel ... to find an equitable solution for the Palestinian people,” he told CNN.
Trump’s pro-Israel rhetoric during the 2016 election campaign raised concern among Palestinians about whether their leaders will get any sort of a fair hearing.
Trump’s promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, strongly opposed by Palestinians, has been shifted to the back burner, and he has asked Netanyahu to put unspecified limits on settlement activity.
© Copyright The Daily Star 2017.