Is Trump being played by the Palestinians?
May 26, 2017
U.S. President Donald Trump’s optimism about Middle East peace might be justified.
Perhaps Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’ pledge that he will be a “true partner” to Trump in the search for peace is genuine. Or maybe Trump’s negotiating skills—and his lack of interest in the details or his loyalty to formulas like the two-state solution—will provide what is needed to achieve progress.
But a statement issued only a few days before Trump’s meeting with Abbas shows that there’s more at stake here than the real estate deal of the century.
Just prior to the red carpet reception that Abbas got in Washington, his Hamas rivals sought to make some news of their own.
The Islamist terror group, which runs Gaza as an independent Palestinian state in all but name, remains focused on its longtime campaign to unseat Abbas and his Fatah party. The relationship between the two factions has been complicated, and at times deadly. But as much as Abbas fears Hamas (and depends on Israeli security cooperation to ensure his survival), he knows that he can’t make any deals without Hamas’ approval. At the same time, Hamas terrorists worry that increased assistance from the U.S. and the Arab world will enable Abbas to maintain his stranglehold on the West Bank.
That’s why Hamas recently produced what it touted as a new statement of principles. The document eschewed some of the usual anti-Semitic rhetoric that Hamas generally uses, and states the group’s willingness to accept a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders.
Optimists hailed Hamas’ “shift” as an indication that even Palestinian extremists are moving closer to peace. But what they missed is that the document also explicitly states that any independent Palestinian state would be merely a stepping-stone toward the ultimate goal of destroying Israel.
Hamas still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn. This is a position that the terror group actually shares with Abbas’ Fatah. Hamas also refused to disavow terrorism.
Realists, therefore, understand that the objectives of both Abbas and Hamas are very different from the hopes of Israelis and President Trump. That’s why Trump will need to give more than lip service to Israeli concerns about Palestinian behavior if he wants the product of his diplomatic offensive to amount to more than a piece of paper.
Trump deserves credit for pointing out, even in the midst of a feel-good appearance with Abbas, that the Palestinians must cease paying terrorist prisoners and their families. Trump also asked Abbas to stop using official television and other media, as well as PA-run schools, to incite violence against Israel and Jews. A senior adviser to Abbas dismissed that request as “mad.” Previous U.S. administrations have made similar requests to no avail, but such efforts were never considered priorities. And, as a result, the PA has continued to receive subsidies from both Americans and Europeans for 23 years—despite the fact that the Palestinians have been using that money to foment and subsidize terror.
Given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political and legal troubles at home, Abbas may think that he can win a game of chicken with the prime minister. In this scenario, the Israelis would pull out of talks before the Palestinians, thus enabling the Palestinians to look good without actually making peace. But the US objective here needs to be laying the groundwork for a genuine change in Palestinian behavior, rather than a symbolic handshake that would give Trump a political boost or support his assertion that Middle East peace “is frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
One of the prerequisites for peace is for the Palestinians to reject Hamas’ vision of endless war against the Jews. But both Fatah and Hamas are merely seeking to position themselves to take advantage of an American president whose hubris about a diplomatic coup may impel him to ignore a Palestinian political culture rooted in the rejection of Zionism.
There is no “new” Hamas, any more than Abbas is prepared to reform the PA or to reject terrorism and his hatred of Jews. Unless Trump holds both the PA and Hamas accountable for their behavior, then what he is asking Israelis to do is to trade away their only negotiating chips for a deal that will give them neither security nor genuine peace. That’s the sort of bad deal that Trump would never accept, and it’s not one that he should expect the Israelis to swallow either.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.