While his close advisors were keen to emphasise the importance of the meeting in the days running up to Abbas’ trip, the Palestinian President will no doubt return to Palestine with more questions than answers.
The Palestinian leadership had been preparing for the visit to the White House for weeks, encouraged that Trump had not completely shunned the ageing Abbas. Indeed, the early signs of Trump’s Presidency have not been good for the Palestinians, with Trump’s lukewarm commitment to the two-state solution made clear during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister in the White House in February 2017. The new US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has direct links to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Trump’s team has still not completely buried the idea of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a move that could seriously disrupt the political situation on the ground.
Seeking to capitalize on what Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki described as a historic opportunity, the Fatah-dominated PA – ruled by Abbas – took hard-hitting steps against the de facto Hamas government ruling the Gaza Strip in the run-up to the meeting, first slashing the salary of public servants by up to 50% and then announcing that the PA would stop paying for electricity supplied to the roughly two million Gazans living in the besieged enclave. As a result, thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza on 2 May to protest against Abbas. Through this show of strength, analysts believe Abbas was hoping to convince Trump that only he and not Hamas are in charge in Palestine. Yet there is little to suggest the gamble has paid off.
Except vague statements in support of a peaceful solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict, Trump’s remarks on 3 May as he stood next to Abbas in the White House did not reflect any of the Palestinian leadership’s key demands, such as a freeze in settlement building or a clear timetable for peace negotiations. Rather, Trump explained, “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.” This contrasts with the long repeated view of Abbas and his close team that bilateral peace talks have been and will remain to be futile. In fact, Trump made no mention of the two-state solution or the borders of 4 June 1967. It was later reported that Trump raised the issue of PA compensatory payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners – some of whom Israel accuses of committing terrorist attacks. The US President reportedly requested that these payments be halted. With the ongoing Palestinian hunger strike entering its third week – with the overwhelming support of the Palestinian public – such a step would to be tantamount to political suicide.
While it is not clear why Abbas’s left for Washington D.C. with such hopes, it remains to be seen if Trump will be willing to meet basic Palestinian demands. As such, once the dust settles, many Palestinians will ask if all the diplomatic posturing and intra-Palestinian confrontation was really worth it.