Analysis

Trump's Deal Is a Long Way Off, but Preserving Status Quo Important for Palestinians

Any achievements that can be credited to Palestinian diplomacy are the kind that simply preserve the status quo with the Israelis

A Palestinian demonstrator holding an anti-U.S. President Donald Trump poster during a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 22, 2017. The poster reads, "American policy is a stigma for humanity. Trump's visit is a delusion and stage for ignoring Palestinian rights."
A Palestinian demonstrator holding an anti-U.S. President Donald Trump poster during a protest in support of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners, near Ramallah, May 22, 2017. MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS

For all the bizarre hopes now being pinned on U.S. President Donald Trump and his ostensible ability to “make a deal,” even he will quickly discover that there’s an enormous gap between Israel’s interpretation of “peace” and the principles laid down in international decisions and the 2002 Arab League initiative. And given all his flip-flopping and inconsistencies, it’s hard to see Trump trying to force Israel to obey internationaal law and UN resolutions.

The Palestinian leadership is well aware of this. Nevertheless, it can point to some achievements from Trump’s visit.

The first is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – like one of the big boys – participated in the Arab-American summit in Riyadh. In other words, he belongs to a club whose importance the tycoon in the White House recognizes.

Additionally, the Palestinians can highlight the fact that when Trump made the rounds of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he did so without any high-level Israeli political escort. And while nobody should risk a prediction about what will happen with the U.S. Embassy, for now it seems the sensitivities of the issue have been understood, and the Saudi king has made his views clear.

Given the Palestinian leadership’s weakness, even the fact that the rules of American policy toward the PA haven’t been changed is an achievement.

Abbas will host Trump in Bethlehem on Tuesday. That’s actually preferable to Ramallah, which, according to the Palestinians’ official position, is no more than a temporary capital.

Bethlehem is an important gateway to the Christian world. If there’s anyone in the United States or South America who doesn’t recognize the name “Palestine,” he has surely heard of Bethlehem.

Moreover, by being associated with a city so important to Christianity, the Palestinians are once again demonstrating their cultural and historical roots in this land, as well as the supra-religious – or dual-religion – nature of their national identity. In that, they are both more similar and more comprehensible to other nations than the Jewish-Israeli nation is.

Palestinians working on a poster depicting U.S. President Donald Trump, in preparations for Tuesday's visit in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 22, 2017.
Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

On a separate, parallel track, the Palestinian public continued its efforts to support the hunger-striking prisoners on Monday, through a commercial and school strike that they say was fully observed after 11 A.M., which included demonstrations, clashes with the army and joining the hunger strike themselves for a few hours.

The media outlets that answer to Abbas (Voice of Palestine Radio and the Wafa news agency) are religiously covering the protests and the hunger strike by “our heroic prisoners.”

They also published a furious denial Monday by government spokesmen of a report saying the Palestinian security services had been ordered to halt the protests in Bethlehem and Ramallah. This report stemmed from a forged proclamation purporting to come from the security services, the official denial said.

Ever since the hunger strike began in April, many have charged, or at least suspected, that Abbas isn’t interested in it – just as he generally attributes no importance to other forms of popular protest. But whether that’s true or not, the official media’s coverage jibes with public sentiment.

Bringing Trump to Bethlehem in this atmosphere isn’t simple. The president’s visit will be very brief, and Trump won’t see the protest tent in support of the prisoners (and therefore also won’t visit the Church of the Nativity). Nor will he even peek at Bethlehem’s three refugee camps (Aida, Azza and Deheisheh), and he’ll fly past the separation barrier (which he has previously praised).

Nevertheless, assuming all goes well, this will be grounds for pride for the Palestinian security services – that they, too, like the big boys, are working with their American and Israeli colleagues to provide security for the presidential entourage and keep it from harm.

These achievements won’t impress the Palestinian public or bolster Abbas’ waning support. And given his lack of popularity, the Palestinian president won’t dare accept whatever agreement Trump may be fantasizing about – one that will violate the principles of the two-state solution to which Abbas has adhered for decades. Abbas wouldn’t accept it even if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to.

In other words, all the achievements of this visit that can be credited to Palestinian diplomacy are the kind that preserve the status quo, not the kind that open a window for substantive change. And preserving the status quo has become the defining characteristic of the Palestinian leadership. Without intending it, and contrary to their official statements, this is the peak of what they can aspire to now.

In this regard, too, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proven he’s a smarter and more experienced politician than Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett: His approval of “economic gestures” to the Palestinians (a permanent ritual ever since the PA was established, and a promise routinely made to every American president at the beginning of and during his term) has been an inseparable part of the art of maintaining the status quo.

In general, Israel keeps only a tiny fraction of its promises, and even these are quickly eroded. But in this way, both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships can postpone, for another short while, the eruption, collapse and conflict that are constantly being predicted.