I have argued previously that Trump’s decision to recognise the reality of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was transactional. What is of vital importance in this contract was the future price Trump extracted from Bibi Netanyahu for this symbolic decision.
That price relates to Trump’s grand peace plan for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. By delivering the gift of formally recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital ahead of any actual face-to-face negotiation, it is assumed that the paradigm of decades old peace-making would be shaken up. Israel would enter the negotiations with the Palestinians with an iron-clad IOU on Trump’s desk BEFORE the negotiations started. This would normally be a very risky manoeuvre by any Israeli leader.
But we may never know the price that could have been extracted because the Palestinians have baulked at entering negotiations, and at entirely the wrong time to walk away.
Unless there is some genius Kissingerian master move in play, Mahmoud Abbas has lashed out at Trump for recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a decision that Trump explained does not foreclose any agreed future division of the city. Having recently visited Saudi Arabia, Abbas was apparently told to cease fuelling the constant stream of outbursts against Trump, and to allow the protests to peter out. Abbas has ignored the hand that feeds him and has since rode his charger into the Erdogan anti-US camp.
It seems an inexplicable move. You have just been given an enormously powerful endowment — Bibi’s IOU to Trump — that you can cash in during the negotiations that will ultimately deliver the state you have devoted your life to achieving, with commensurate freedom and independence for your people.
And you walk away from this opportunity. Indeed, you ensure the powerful players who can deliver your nemesis come to resent and turn their back on you. At the time of writing, the Palestinians and the US are declaring a severance of relations. There are rumours in various media that the Americans have washed their hands of Abbas, as he has done with the Trump team, and looking for a new Palestinian leader with whom to do business.
It would be inexplicable except for the fact that history is repeating itself. Abbas was made prime minister before he became president precisely because the Americans under George W. Bush could no longer trust nor work with Arafat. The Americans were ready to deliver Israeli Prime Minster Sharon to the table and the Palestinians, walked away. Recall that Arafat did the same thing when Clinton delivered Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000.
Why was Arafat’s history of never failing to miss an opportunity for peace repeating itself under his successor, Mahmoud Abbas?
I recall a dinner I attended in 2015 with Tal Becker, at the time the Principal Legal Advisor to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He told the Australian Labor group I was with that he had been commissioned to review every peace plan and draft agreement that had ever been put on the table of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to understand the current impasse, what had not been tried, and what not to do.
His conclusion was that the two interlocutors to the conflict were both “traumatised peoples” that viewed their interaction as a zero-sum game. Any gain by one side immediately meant a loss on the other. Tal told us a story that in one negotiation session, the Palestinians came up with a new and interesting idea on a specific topic, and that he, Tal, then “made a rookie mistake. I said the idea was positive and would take it back to our (Israeli) team to work through. The other side immediately withdrew it and it was never discussed again, because if we saw it as positive, it could only mean it would be negative for the other.”
Yet to have given up the singularly most important opportunity to get ahead of negotiations by cashing in Bibi’s IOU to Trump is very difficult to fathom. Even with the level of distrust that hijacks the ability of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to solve their dispute, letting such a vital opening to a possible solution lapse, is reckless.
This incredible opportunity does not exist in a vacuum either. Trump has lined up the the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians to provide the required protection for Abbas and the Palestinians to do the deal that seals their people’s independence.
Abbas’ reckless behaviour is not readily understandable, unless he is not truly interested in living with Israel after all.