Analysis

Palestinians Shift Strategy, Playing National Security Card With Trump

Officials are pushing the indispensability of Palestinian Authority and suggesting that if the two-state solution disappears, consequences for the region would be grave

Palestinians at a coffee shop in Ramallah, West Bank watch Donald Trump meet with Mahmoud Abbas, May 3, 2017.
Majdi Mohammed/AP

Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, it was not clear to what extent the Palestinians could be optimistic about his administration's prospects of bringing a breakthrough to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process based on their demands. Palestinian Authority officials see that there hasn't been a dramatic change in U.S. policy that would lead to abandoning its major strategic partner, Israel.

However, there have been some reassuring messages in recent months, such as National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster's comments that Trump will express support for Palestinian aspirations for self-determination on his visit to Israel next week. This followed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' reception at the White House at the beginning of the month.

A senior Palestinian official familiar with the PA's contacts with Washington said that in talks with the Americans, including those in the National Security Council, the Palestinians are not only seeking support for a two-state solution. They also want to establish a strategic partnership with the United States and hope to demonstrate that it will have impact on America's relationship with its allies in region, such as Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The main common denominator for the Trump administration and the PA is in the field of national security. The initial contacts in this regard began in practice during Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj's visit to Washington, which included meetings with top-level military and intelligence officials. In addition, the highest level Trump administration official to visit the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in Ramallah was not a diplomat or Middle East expert, but rather the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo.

“Our approach in recent months is first and foremost to build our relationship with the United States as Palestine,” a senior Palestinian official told Haaretz. But that doesn’t mean that the Palestinian leadership is nave in thinking that it is capable of speaking on the same terms as the U.S.-Israel relationship, or even in terms of the relations between the Americans and Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Palestinian officials are promoting the indispensability of the PA's strategic partnership with the U.S. and suggesting that if the Authority loses control and the two-state solution disappears from the diplomatic lexicon, the consequences for the region would be grave.

White House press conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. May 3, 2017.
Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg

The Palestinians believe that the Trump administration, like those before it, will do whatever it can to preserve the Authority and its institutions in the interest of American national security. In Washington, they are raising questions such as who would fill the vacuum in the event that the PA collapses as a result of Israeli actions such as West Bank annexation or additional settlement construction that preclude the establishment of a territorial contiguous Palestinian state.

They bring up the impact of such a situation on Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and those living in refugee camps in the West Bank, and what will occur when they understand that hopes for Palestinian self-determination are over. How, Palestinian officials ask, would that affect the stability of Lebanon, Jordan and the Gaza Strip, and who would Israel and the United States would coordinate with in the absence of effective Palestinian leadership?

How would the Palestinian Authority’s collapse affect the standing of Iran and its allies in the region and what support would groups like Hamas and Hezbollah receive? To what extent would Salafist and jihadist groups try to fill the vacuum? These are some of the issues around which the PA is trying to build a dialogue with the United States. They hope to show that the American quest for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should not be based solely on a desire to help and in solidarity with the Palestinian right to self-determination but also on a strategic partnership and coalescing interests.