Mahmoud Abbas’ meeting with a U.S. businessman close to Donald Trump’s son-in-law prompted the Palestinian president to launch a campaign against moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian sources say.
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Until the meeting with New York businessman Daniel Arbess last week, Abbas interpreted the U.S. president-elect’s declarations about moving the embassy as mere election slogans.
On January 3, at a meeting with a delegation from the left-wing Israeli party Meretz, Abbas spoke dismissively about the possibility that the embassy would be moved. “We are acting with patience and restraint in the face of President-elect Trump’s statements,” a source at the meeting quoted Abbas as saying.
“We understand that things that are said during a campaign do not necessarily reflect the reality of his term. I do not believe that he will move the embassy to Jerusalem. Even he understands that this is a step with irreversible and broad significance beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
But a day later Abbas changed his mind after meeting with Arbess, the founder of Xerion Investments, the sources say.
A source who knows Arbess says that a few months ago he decided to ramp down his business activities and spend his time advancing solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Around two weeks ago Arbess approached senior officials in Abbas’ office through the mediation of another American businessman, asking to meet with Abbas and the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Saeb Erekat. The man who arranged the meeting introduced Arbess as a man close to Trump’s staff.
By then, all requests by Abbas’ people for a meeting with the president-elect had been denied.
It is not entirely clear how close Arbess is to Trump. But an American source who knows him says Arbess has friendly ties with the most significant man in Trump’s entourage, his son-in-law Jared Kushner. The source says Arbess and Kushner sit beside each other at the Kehilath Jeshurun synagogue in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
A few days ago, Trump appointed Kushner a senior White House adviser. Trump has also said Kushner could play a role promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Since the election Arbess has published opinion pieces and has been interviewed in the international and Israeli media. He has praised Trump and called his victory an opportunity to move the peace process forward. On November 13, five days after the election, Arbess told the Israeli English-language television channel i24News that there was a greater chance of advancing the peace process with Trump in the White House than with Barack Obama.
Arbess outlined his ideas for an Israeli initiative consisting of gradual steps to improve the Palestinian economy, more powers for the Palestinian Authority and an increase in security coordination. He said Israel’s Arab neighbors would support such moves.
Arbess said Trump would not enforce terms on Israel and the Palestinians but would wait for Israel to take the initiative. If it did so, Trump would support the effort.
In The Jerusalem Post in December, Arbess published a piece reiterating that Trump’s election was an opportunity for Israel to advance the peace process.
Hearing that Arbess was close to Trump’s staff, Palestinian officials agreed to his request and arranged a meeting with Abbas. An Israeli source familiar with details of the meeting said Arbess told Abbas that as far as he knew, Trump was serious about moving the embassy to Jerusalem and might announce this shortly after being sworn in on January 20.
A senior PLO source confirmed that an American had told the Palestinian leadership that Trump intended to announce a move of the embassy on January 21.
Two other Palestinian officials confirmed this report. One official confirmed that the American who met with Abbas was Arbess. He said some of Abbas’ confidants were skeptical about how close Arbess was to Trump and his people, and how reliable he was.
Arbess himself has declined to give details on his meeting with Abbas. In a short telephone conversation with Haaretz, he said he had come to Israel as a tourist and hung up after less than a minute.
It is thus not entirely clear whether what Arbess told Abbas about moving the embassy is accurate and whether it was a message from Trump or his advisers. Still, the meeting had a dramatic effect on Abbas.
The next day he changed his approach and launched a diplomatic and media campaign against the moving of the embassy. On Friday in Bethlehem, Abbas spoke sharply about the matter and warned the move would have serious consequences.
According to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa, the Abbas called on Trump to reconsider his support for such a move. “Abbas told Trump that such [a] move will likely have [a] disastrous impact on the peace process, on the two-state solution and on the stability and security of the entire region, since Israel’s decision to annex East Jerusalem contradicts with international law,” Wafa reported.
The Palestinians have enlisted Arab states to the campaign and several Arab ambassadors have met with senior Trump advisers in recent days, warning them not to move the embassy.
The Palestinians intend to make a decision on the issue in around two weeks at a conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which has 57 member states.