In Ramallah, the phone call was news for days. After a two-month long period of silence —exacerbated by a hyped visit for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the White House — US president Donald Trump rang Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday 10 March, at 8:15 pm local time.
The White House’s readout of the call was mundane. The the two men discussed ways to advance peace in “the Middle East” including a “comprehensive agreement” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump emphasised that the “time has come to make a deal” which must be negotiated directly between the two parties as the US cannot impose a solution.
The brief readout finished with Trump extending an invitation to Abbas for a meeting at the White House, “in the near future”.
Palestinian anxiety over Trump’s policy was triggered long before he entered the White House in response to his campaign vows to move the US Embassy from the Israeli capital Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem: disputed by the two sides and the most sensitive file in the two-decade long negotiations. He also criticised Barak Obama for abandoning Israel and after assuming office, appointed David M Friedman — a staunch supporter of Israel and illegal settlements — as US ambassador to Israel.
That Netanyahu was among the first leaders to visit the White House since Trump’s inauguration — and one of the first to receive a call from the US president in his first week in office — attested to a level of change in American policy.
During their joint February presser, Trump did not express commitment to the two-state solution when asked about it and expressed approval of a one state — in this case a Jewish one — as an option.
Shunned for years by Netanyahu, Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority (PA) no longer serves a role in establishing a Palestinian state since the collapse of the peace process, recently fell to irrelevance as most Arab counterparts — Egypt included — kept a distance.
Trump’s phone call could have a semblance of a reverse effect. It has, in the words of Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rodaina, “removed Israeli illusions that President Abbas was not a peace partner”.
He added that recent American-Palestinian communications convey the message that a solution to the conflict can only be achieved through “Palestinian, Arab and international legitimacy”.
Such confidence might be warranted. “I think Trump genuinely believes he can seal the ultimate deal,” said Khaled Elgindy senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution's Centre for Middle East Policy in a telephone interview. The lack of regional experience by his top advisors- his son in law Jared Kushner and his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt- in addition to US ambassador to Israel David M Friedman’s opposition to a two-state solution, suggest that the move is coming from Trump, Elgindy added.
But others caution that the hype in official Palestinian quarters has less to do with any substantial change the Trump administration could bring to the stalled peace process as much as it offers Abbas much needed legitimacy and a raison d’etre.
“A phone call where Trump basically conveys to Abbas what was agreed upon with Netanyahu should not be regarded as more than that,” said Abdel-Qader Yassin, a Cairo-based Palestinian expert and commentator.
The Palestinian leadership insists that negotiations are the only way to deal with Israel, when “it is a zero-sum game for the Israelis,” he added “and that is liquidating the Palestinian question, not finding a solution for it.”
Abbas is also facing rising opposition at home and the role of the PA in quashing any resistance or opposition by Palestinians in the West Bank to Israel. Protests in Ramallah continued for the second day in a row on Monday to protest PA security cooperation with Israel, which is blamed for the latter’s assassination of a prominent Palestinian activist and resistance figure Basil Al-Araj last week.
Despite his death, a Palestinian court opened a trial for Al-Araj and five others in an old case related to the possession of unlicensed weapons. A hearing on 12 March triggered demonstrations where supporters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine attempted to enter the courtroom but were repelled by Palestinian police.
Eleven protestors were injured or fainted, including Al-Araj’s father. The court dismissed the case for Al-Araj due to his death but will continue to prosecute his alleged accomplices.
Protestors accused the PA of coordinating with the Israeli army to hunt down Al-Araj who was previously detained by Palestinian police. “The people demand the fall of Oslo” protestors chanted Monday in reference to the agreement that gave birth to the Palestinian Authority as an interim entity to manage the West Bank, but only through full cooperation with the Israeli occupation and under Israeli sovereignty.
As protests raged on in Ramallah Monday, Trump’s Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt met with the Israeli prime minister to restart talks with the Palestinians. As Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press Tuesday, Greenblatt was due to meet with Abbas in the West Bank.
If indeed the Trump administration starts a process or talks between the two sides, it would be based on the “pillars of Oslo,” says Elgindy: “Economics, quality of life for the Palestinians and security.”
The ‘land for peace’ motto that served as the ethos of Oslo’s early years has ceased to be part of the two-state solution discourse.
Throughout the two and a half decades of negotiations, illegal settlements continued to expand and flourish at an alarming speed and volume across Palestinian territory, making a viable Palestinian state impossible. But even critics of Oslo and the two-state solution aren’t offering realistic alternatives to the Palestinians who continue to bear the brunt of the Israeli occupation; expansion of illegal settlements on occupied territories, land confiscation and restricted movement.
“The situation is dire for the Palestinians,” who feel completely betrayed by officials, said Yassin, the Cairo-based commentator. “This explains the knife Intifada (in reference to attacking Israeli settlers and policemen) of lone wolves with no affiliation to any Palestinian faction or organisation over the past two years.”