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Fatah pressures Abbas to change strategy

After US President Donald Trump's speech at the United Nations, many Palestinian leaders are advancing the idea of a binational state to pressure Israel and the United States into negotiating a two-state solution.

Addressing the UN General Assembly for the first time, US President Donald Trump did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Not one word on the issue in his extensive Sept. 19 speech about all the world’s problems, menaces and opportunities.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the speech as if he had just heard the best musical concert of his life. Indeed, Trump’s words on revising the Iran deal, fighting Islamic terror and destroying North Korea were music to his ears — especially the silence on the Palestinian issue. In his own UN address, Netanyahu characterized the speech as the most pro-Israel one he had ever heard throughout his political career.

Netanyahu rejoiced over this speech, a far cry from former President Barack Obama’s diplomatic approach to conflict resolution and his striving for collective diplomacy, including within the United Nations. Trump's speech included no call for a two-state solution and no criticism of the settlements, unlike Obama's speeches. For a moment, while addressing the world from the UN podium and meeting with Israeli reporters, Netanyahu could forget the perils he left behind in Jerusalem, namely the two police investigations of which he is a suspect.

A senior Israeli diplomat who was part of Netanyahu’s New York delegation told Al-Monitor that Netanyahu was double-satisfied by his visit to New York. Not only did Netanyahu feel vindicated in the case he made to Trump about the Iranian regional threat and the irrelevance of the Palestinian issue, he also senses that he now has a free pass to pursue the diplomatic policies that will keep his right-wing government intact.

According to this Israeli official, one can foresee a continuation of settlement expansion, in a somewhat restrained way, and setting strict conditions for negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu will probably demand that negotiations be bilateral and without Palestinian preconditions. He will insist right at the beginning of any such negotiations on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and on Israeli overriding security responsibility over all the West Bank, even after permanent status. It was obvious to the official that his ministry need not prepare for a peace conference or so-called peace negotiations in the foreseeable future.

The reaction of Abbas was the extreme opposite. According to a senior PLO official, Abbas considers Trump’s speech the kiss of death for any eventual US-led two-state solution process. The official, who also took part in the dialogue with the US president’s peace envoys, claimed that the New York visit, including Abbas' Sept. 20 meeting with Trump, was a watershed away from diplomacy. In addition to the Trump disappointment, Abbas was also taken aback by the positions of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Abbas was clearly frustrated with the openly cordial meeting between Sisi and Netanyahu in New York, as well as Sisi’s speech at the General Assembly meeting, calling on Israelis to give peace a chance.

According to the PLO official, most of the Palestinian leadership senses it must change its strategy. Abbas can no longer ignore growing voices that openly support a binational state solution with equal rights for Palestinians. He claimed that Abbas met with a group of Fatah hawks who made this a demand.

The PLO official explained the rationale behind such a Palestinian position: “Israel under Netanyahu refuses to enter serious negotiations on a two-state solution. The international community is paralyzed due to President Trump’s isolationist policies. The time has come, in the mind of many Palestinian leaders, to beat Israel at its own game. The alternative to a two-state solution is a binational state, in which Palestinians will demand and fight for equal rights. Within a few years we will be the majority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and the world will not accept an apartheid state. Actually, we may even dismantle the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo Accord and demand [from Israel] equal political and national rights in what is clearly today becoming a binational state.”

One should not underestimate this Palestinian position. This is not their immediate vision, but in the long run many Palestinian leaders truly believe that such a strategy will defeat Israel. According to this PLO official, for most Palestinian leaders this is still a tactical position only — a way to pressure Israel and the United States into a two-state solution process. Yet in the eyes of several prominent Palestinian politicians and intellectuals, the support for a binational state is gradually turning into a strategic choice.

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