At White House, Abbas to ask Trump to back Arab peace plan
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' relief at being invited to the White House is now clouded by concerns he might have to say no to President Donald Trump in their first meeting on Wednesday.
Palestinians fear Trump will ask Abbas to halt stipends for families of Palestinians killed or jailed in the context of the conflict with Israel and a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday that such a request was raised in preparatory talks with Palestinian officials. Israel considers such payments a reward for terrorists, but stopping them seems untenable to Abbas, especially at a time of broad Palestinian support for a mass hunger strike of prisoners held by Israel.
Why is the meeting important?
A solid relationship with the U.S. 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 1967. The 82-year-old leader has stuck to this approach despite repeated failures of U.S.-led negotiations with Israel and growing doubts that a partition remains possible as Israeli settlements gobble up more occupied territory.
Trump ignored the Palestinians early in his presidency, while appearing to side with Israel on key issues. Being shunned by the U.S. 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 militant group.
What does Abbas want?
Trump seems eager to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal – and some hold out hope that his free-wheeling style might succeed where more orthodox diplomacy has failed.
The U.S. official said on Tuesday that Trump will seek a commitment from Abbas to help move peace efforts forward and will lay out expectations for Palestinian actions that could help create a climate conducive to making progress. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to publicly preview the meeting.
Abbas aides say he will try to win Trump's support for an Arab League peace plan offering Israel normalisation 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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek normalisation with some Arab countries ahead of a Palestinian deal.
Abbas will also argue that Israeli economic gestures toward the Palestinians, recently encouraged by the U.S., are no alternative to negotiations on a two-state solution.
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 sought for a Palestinian state; some 600,000 Israelis already live in occupied territory and construction continues. Netanyahu reportedly agreed only to a vague slowdown.
A White House official said that while the existence of settlements is not an impediment to peace, "further unrestrained settlement activity" does not help advance peace. The administration believes a solution cannot be imposed on the two sides, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the meeting's aims.
What does Israel want?
Israel has pressed demands 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.
The U.S. official said on Tuesday that the issue came up in talks with senior Palestinian officials, with the administration asking that the payments be halted. He said the issue will be a focus during Abbas' visit.
Earlier Tuesday, three Republican senators urged a halt to such payments in a letter that reflected widespread opinion on the Hill.
Palestinians see the stipends as welfare payments to victims of the occupation. While they are 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 on Wednesday.
Abbas adviser Nabil Shaath said the Palestinian leader 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 Israeli-occupied 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 U.S.-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.
A new political manifesto released by Hamas on Monday, after years of internal debate, seems to harden the ideological divide. The document was billed as more pragmatic than Hamas' fiery founding charter and for the first time refers to the possibility of a state on the 1967 lines – but it still refers repeatedly to an ultimate goal of "liberation" of all historical Palestine, including what is now Israel. (AP)
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