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Is Trump's Mideast initiative one-sided?

Palestinians worry that US President Donald Trump is pressuring the pragmatic Sunni leadership to accept an American plan that would be closer to the Israeli position than to the Palestinian one.

The Palestinian leadership was shaken by the horrific terror attack that killed more than 300 Egyptians in the northern Sinai town of Bir al-Abed on Nov. 24. Both Fatah and Hamas expressed their solidarity with the Egyptian government and people.

Visiting Ramallah these days, one comes away with the impression that the Palestinian leadership is extremely frustrated over the fact that fundamentalist terror is now topping the agendas of their Arab allies — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Palestinians feel that the anti-Iranian efforts these countries are focusing on with the US administration come at the expense of the necessary diplomatic battle for Palestinian statehood. They believe it is playing right into the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy to sideline the Palestinian issue.

A senior PLO official, who is part of the inner circle of President Mahmoud Abbas, told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Abbas had a good meeting on Nov. 8 with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The young Saudi leader expressed optimism about US President Donald Trump’s initiative to achieve a two-state solution within a regional framework based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. At the same time, the official sounded concerned about Trump’s pressure on the pragmatic Sunni leadership to accept an American plan that would be closer to the Israeli position than to the Palestinian position. Abbas, according to the official, has made it clear to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Prince Mohammed and Jordanian King Abdullah II that he will not go along with an American strategy and plan at all costs.

The official said, “Our Arab partners want our support in order to solidify their regional alliance against Iran. Yet we have clear conditions for the acceptance of the American plan: We will not allow again a negotiation process for the sake of the process itself or for the sake of a photo opportunity. Our public opinion is rightly restless and skeptical.”

The Palestinian official detailed a series of minimal conditions for Palestinian involvement in a US-led peace plan. The process must include a two-state solution with the 1967 borders and the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis, a settlement freeze for the duration of negotiations and putting on the table all permanent-status issues. The permanent-status issues should include Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Also, the US plan should include the release of Palestinian prisoners, as was promised by US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014.

The Palestinians stress that security arrangements agreed by both sides cannot include a long-term Israeli presence in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. They insist that mutual recognition already took place in 1993 (Oslo Accord).

Once these conditions are met, and when all issues of permanent status are resolved, the Palestinian side is ready for an end to the conflict. It will also accept normalization of Arab relations with Israel, based on the Arab Peace Initiative.

The official claimed that these are reasonable and pragmatic positions that Abbas espouses. He added, “Any US administration who will look for a leader with more moderate positions will fail. This is supposed to be a peace agreement between equals, not a surrender; our national strategy of living side by side with Israel in peace and security stands firm.”

A senior Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said that Netanyahu is satisfied with the latest regional developments. He sees the possible creation of an anti-Iranian axis as a result of his policy strategy of the last three years, from the time of his debate with the Barack Obama administration.

Much like the Palestinians, Netanyahu has conveyed to the Trump peace process team (he meets regularly with US Ambassador David Friedman) Israel’s conditions for negotiations with Abbas. These include dismantlement of the military wing of Hamas, that Israel would be guaranteed permanent security control of the West Bank and Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Also, regional anti-terror cooperation must come before negotiations with the Palestinians. According to the source, Israel will agree to limited sovereignty for a Palestinian state, and it would agree to only a partial settlement freeze.

Talking to both sides, one comes to a clear conclusion: A Trump initiative that does not outline a detailed and realistic framework for a two-state solution is a nonstarter due to the wide gap between the parties’ positions. Given the latest regional developments, especially in Saudi Arabia, it seems that the Netanyahu government has once again missed an opportunity to advance, as it is concerned more with political survival than with a political settlement.

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