Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced Wednesday that the Palestinians will no longer work with American peace negotiators in the wake of President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6, the first serious diplomatic fallout from the deeply controversial move.
Speaking to a conference of Muslim leaders in Istanbul, Abbas called Trump’s decision a “crime” that left the US unqualified to continue in its historic role as the main international arbiter in the conflict, a role that he said should now go to the United Nations. Leaders at the conference asked the international community to recognize East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
The comments from Abbas were the Palestinians’ angriest formal response to the Trump announcement. Whether they’ll have any actual practical impact, though, is far from clear.
Abbas doesn’t have much room to maneuver these days. A public opinion poll published on Wednesday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that, unsurprisingly, more than 90 percent of Palestinians reject Trump’s announcement. But it also found that 70 percent of those polled want Abbas to step down.
In part that’s because Abbas angered many of his own people by publicly cozying up to a president widely seen as a close ally and uncritical supporter of the Israeli government.
When Trump and Abbas met back in May at the White House, Trump assured the press that the Palestinian leader would soon be back in Washington to sign a peace deal with the Israelis. “I want to support you in being the Palestinian leader who signs his name to the final and most important peace agreement that brings safety, security, and prosperity to both peoples and to the region,” Trump told Abbas at the time. He then promised to be a mediator for the peace process.
Abbas, in turn, gushed to the president that his “courageous stewardship” would create the capacity, on all sides, “to be true partners to bring about a historic peace treaty,”
By late summer, the Palestinians were feeling decidedly less enthusiastic.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a point person on the peace process, visited both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas in the region the last week of August. “The status quo is not working for our interests,” Ahmad Majdalani, a member of Abbas’s staff, told the press before Kushner visited.
But Kushner’s attentions had Abbas expressing hope once more. “We greatly appreciate the efforts of US President Donald Trump who pledged from the beginning that he is going to work for the ultimate deal,” the Palestinian leader said before his conversation with Kushner.
“We know things are difficult and complicated, but nothing is impossible with good intentions.”
He sure isn’t using words like that now.
Palestinians are promising not to work with Trump. That may not mean much.
Israelis and Palestinians both claim Jerusalem as their capital. Though Israel’s parliament and the prime minister’s home are in Jerusalem, they sit in West Jerusalem, the side of the city Israel has controlled since 1949. Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed that half of the city. The international community views that land as occupied territory; the Palestinians would like it to be their capital one day.
Since 1988 and the beginning of a peace process that envisioned a two-state solution to the conflict — that is, an independent Palestinian state and an independent Israeli state side by side — US policy has been to leave the status of Jerusalem to be decided by the two sides as part of a final peace agreement.
Trump’s statement last week changed that policy.
The Palestinian leadership is reeling from Trump’s decision — and their own choices to trust him despite their initial misgivings, according to Khaled Elgindy, a fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Trump’s announcement, he told me Monday, “[was] a huge setback — I can’t overstate how devastating this is for this Palestinian leadership.”
In the days leading up to Trump’s announcement last week, Abbas said recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv would have grave consequences “for the peace process and security and stability in the region and world.”
But while many thousands did take to the streets in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Lebanon, Morocco, Yemen, Indonesia, and Turkey, by Monday morning they had begun to walk away. Leaders around the world condemned Trump’s decision, and the region remains on edge, but the response has been, thus far, less robust than anticipated.
That’s not to say there wasn’t violence: Four Palestinian protesters were killed in clashes with Israeli security forces, and hundreds were wounded. On Sunday afternoon, a lone Palestinian attacker stabbed an Israeli security guard. But those incidents thus far have remained isolated and, until now, haven’t sparked wider protests.
Immediately following Trump’s statement of recognition, Abbas’s office announced that no Palestinian leader would meet with Vice President Mike Pence when he arrives in the region next week.
Now Abbas is promising a much fuller break with the US. It remains to be seen whether he carries through with the threat — and whether, given the currently moribund peace process, those words change anything at all.