For many years, US secretaries of state have been involved up to their necks in attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and expeditions to the Middle East were routine. All their attempts were met with great disappointment. Ever since the collapse of the latest peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in April 2014, when the Washington-Jerusalem relationship is at its lowest point, new winds are blowing in the Palestinian Authority (PA).
In the past and generally behind closed doors, the Palestinians tended to fault the United States for being an unfair broker with a historic tendency to favor its ally, Israel. But in recent months, the United States has been going to great lengths to strengthen the PA in general through financial support, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in particular with public declarations. It acts out of the unreasonable assumption that the lack of a diplomatic horizon might bring the collapse of the PA. Or if not, it might at least bring about the emergence of extremist elements, which would sound the death knell of the ''US vision'' to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ever since the talks failed, and after the end of Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in August 2014, the US Consulate staff have been busy mapping out Palestinian projects in the PA that need immediate financial aid. These are mainly civilian projects such as hospitals, schools and infrastructure that Abbas’ PA is not capable of maintaining or reconstructing, due to the PA’s shaky financial circumstances.
One expression of this mapping work — continued for a few months — was US Secretrary of State John Kerry’s statement in Cairo on Oct. 12 regarding the transfer of emergency financial aid to the PA in the West Bank, which was bundled with the US donation for reconstructing the Gaza Strip. A statement by the US State Department detailed the US aid: $212 million was donated for Gaza renovation; $100 million was donated as urgent assistance to the PA’s budget, part of which is earmarked for reconstruction of the health care system in East Jerusalem. An additional $37 million will be donated to strengthen the PA’s institutions, and additional contributions of about $100 million will be transferred to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The express directive is that the donated money is designated both to the welfare institutions in Gaza, as well as to the West Bank residents who need aid due to the PA’s fragile circumstances.
“Commitment” is the term that is commonly brandished in US declarations regarding its ally Israel; but it turns out that lately the State Department feels the need to publicly express its commitment to the Palestinians as well. The State Departments's statement ended by saying, “The United States remains committed to continuing to address the needs of the Palestinian people.” By the way, the State Department declared a similar commitment in its Sept. 22 announcement of transferring $71 million of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.
Despite the US commitment, opinions of high-level Palestinians are divided in regard to the United States. Some argue that an open rift between the Obama administration and Abbas is unavoidable in light of the diplomatic process in the United Nations, which will gather momentum in the coming months. But other officials are convinced that although the United States will cast a veto in the UN Security Council against recognition of a Palestinian state, the warm relationship will not be affected. In their opinion, the administration is well aware of Abbas’ distress on the heels of the negotiation failure with Israel and Israel's policy.
Mustafa Barghouti serves as general secretary of the Palestine National Initiative (PNI) and is president of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC). In an interview with Al-Monitor, Barghouti acknowledges that following the troubled relationship between the US administration and Israel, the United States has drawn closer to Abbas and the PA. Barghouti feels that the test of the relationship will come on the day that Abbas begins the process for recognition of the Palestinian state in the UN institutions. “The Israeli provocations against John Kerry and President Barack Obama are leaving their mark,” Barghouti said. “I assume that the Americans can’t talk much [publicly], but they [are frustrated with] the Israeli government.”
The text of most of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: Are you saying that you feel that this [frustration] is what is causing the strengthening of relations between the United States and the PA?
Barghouti: After the failure of the talks it was clear to everyone, maybe mainly to the United States, that the PA must be maintained and strengthened. But in my opinion, at the moment of truth when we reach the great diplomatic process of voting in favor of recognition of the Palestinian state, the Americans will again side with Israel.
Al-Monitor: Meanwhile, the PA benefits from warm relations and from US monetary allocations that the PA never experienced in the past, or at least not as intensively under the denotation of “commitment.”
Barghouti: A lot of money is being invested here, mainly in the security forces and the PA’s institutions, and there is also a yearly budgeting of projects. Nevertheless, I think that the Palestinian side must not worry about a dispute with the Americans and the loss of assistance that we currently enjoy. In light of the failure of the talks and the absence of a diplomatic horizon, no other choice remains for the PA, Abbas and the PLO. They must pursue the obvious course of action and ask for recognition of the Palestinian state from international organs.
Al-Monitor: What you are saying, basically, is that the honeymoon with the United States is temporary.
Barghouti: Not really. Even if we’ll have differences of opinion, I’m not sure that the United States will cut off contact with the Palestinians. The US administration officials understand that for the PA to exist, they need to strengthen it and they have great desire to do so.
Al-Monitor: Do you think that the United States will cast a veto against the Palestinian proclamation of statehood?
Barghouti: We operate under the assumption that it will cast a veto. But after the veto, Abbas will approach the UN institutions, including the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Then the United States will be on the horns of a dilemma.