Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ initial relief over having been invited to the White House is now clouded by concerns he might have to say no to US President Donald Trump on a key issue in their first meeting Wednesday.
Palestinians fear Trump might ask Abbas to halt stipends for families of Palestinians killed or imprisoned after carrying out attacks against Israelis. Israel argues the payments reward terrorists. But stopping them seems untenable at a time of tremendous Palestinian popular support for a mass hunger strike of prisoners held by Israel.
Here’s a look at the issues:
Why is the meeting important?
A solid relationship with the US forms the core of Abbas’ strategy of setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. The 82-year-old leader has stuck to this approach despite repeated failures of US-led negotiations with Israel and growing doubts that a partition remains possible as Israeli settlements continue to expand in disputed territory.
Loss of access to Washington became a terrifying possibility for Abbas after Trump ignored the Palestinians early in his presidency, while appearing to side with Israel on key issues. Being shunned by the US would undercut Abbas’ remaining political legitimacy just as polls show two-thirds of Palestinians want him to resign. Abbas has been in power since 2005, and new elections were blocked partly because of a rivalry with the Hamas terrorist organization.
What does Abbas want?
Trump seems eager to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal—and some hold out hope that the US president’s freewheeling style might succeed where more orthodox diplomacy has failed. Abbas wants to hear more, especially as Trump has shown he’s not necessarily wedded to traditional US positions.
Abbas aides say he will try to win Trump’s support for an Arab League peace plan offering Israel normalization with the Arab and Muslim world if it allows a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines. The plan was reaffirmed in March at an Arab summit and would block efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek normalization with some Arab countries ahead of a Palestinian deal.
Abbas will also argue that Israeli economic gestures toward the Palestinians, recently encouraged by the US, are no alternative to negotiations on a two-state solution. Israeli hardliners promote the idea of “economic peace” in place of Palestinian statehood.
An Abbas–Netanyahu meeting?Wide gaps between Abbas and Netanyahu on the framework of a future deal have prevented serious negotiations since the Israeli leader came to power in 2009. If pressed, Abbas might reluctantly agree to a one-off meeting with Netanyahu, Palestinian officials suggest.
Prospects for renewed talks are sketchy, though. The Trump administration previously tried to win a commitment from Netanyahu to curb settlement building on lands the Palestinians seek for their state; some 600,000 Israelis already live in disputed territory, and construction continues. Netanyahu reportedly agreed only to a vague slowdown.
What does Israel want?
Israel pressed demands in recent days that Abbas halt monthly stipends for the families of thousands of Palestinians killed or jailed as part of the conflict, including those who killed or wounded Israelis.
“How can you speak about peace with Israel while you finance murderers who shed the blood of innocent Israelis at every opportunity?” Netanyahu asked in a speech this week.
Abbas’ relief over being received at the White House comes with “a great deal of fear because this campaign to stop payments to security prisoners” has gained traction in the US, said Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.
While administration officials have not said so, there is reason to believe the US may indeed pressure the Palestinians on the payments, as three key Republican senators urged in a letter sent Tuesday which reflected widespread opinion on the Hill.
Trump’s incoming ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, acknowledged the payments as a concern in his Senate confirmation hearing. Asked whether Palestinians were “rewarding terrorists” and if there was an “increasing incentive” based on the number of people an attacker had killed, he said: “Exactly true.”
Palestinians see the stipends as welfare payments to victims of the conflict with Israel. While they’re split on whether violence is effective or acceptable, Palestinians overwhelmingly view anyone killed in conflict with Israel, including attackers, as freedom fighters. A hunger strike of 870 Palestinian prisoners, in its third week, enjoys wall-to-wall support in the West Bank, where a solidarity rally is planned Wednesday.
Abbas adviser Nabil Shaath said he cannot budge on the issue.
Does Abbas speak for all Palestinians?
The Hamas takeover of Gaza led to the formation of rival Palestinian governments—the Islamic militants run the seaside strip, from which Israel withdrew troops and settlers in 2005, while Abbas administers autonomous enclaves in parts of the West Bank.
A decade and several failed reconciliation attempts later, Abbas has been stepping up financial pressure in recent weeks, slashing wage and aid payments to Gaza. With this tough new approach, Abbas can tell Trump that he has leverage and is ready to use it against Hamas.
Hamas routinely portrays Abbas’ efforts to reach statehood through US-brokered negotiations with Israel as a waste of time. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said this week that Abbas markets an illusion and lacks legitimacy to represent the Palestinian people.