The invitation extended by US President Donald Trump to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took Israel by complete surprise. It was made March 10 during a phone call in the evening hours at Trump's initiative. According to a Palestinian source who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, Trump was courteous and attentive, sounding out Abbas on how he views the future of talks with Israel and whether he thinks an agreement can be reached. Abbas answered in the affirmative, and the two arranged to meet in the Oval Office, according to the source.
When the Palestinian president put down the phone at the end of the call, “Team Trump” breathed a sigh of relief. If all goes as planned and the meeting takes place in May, the tempestuous president will get to know Abbas personally and, to the extent possible, see through the diabolical image of him that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has painted over the years.
That does not mean that Abbas’ associates are sanguine. The attitude toward the new president is, as President Ronald Reagan said of the Soviets, “trust but verify.” But the restrained and calculated diplomacy (and some Palestinians would proudly add “clever”) adopted by the Palestinian Authority (PA) has yielded impressive results far beyond expectations. For example, Trump has already laid down the law to Netanyahu on Israeli settlements in the West Bank (asking Netanyahu not to build any new settlements), all thanks to the backstage diplomacy conducted by the Palestinians.
As reported first by Al-Monitor, the initiative to invite the Palestinian president to the White House was hatched in February at a meeting in PA headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah between Abbas and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. A solid personal relationship forged with Majid Faraj, the head of the Palestinian Security Services, was a contributing factor. The Pompeo-Abbas meeting was held at the same time as Trump and Netanyahu were sitting down to talk at the White House. The Palestinians understood that they must get Trump and Abbas together as soon as possible before the US president has time to formulate a misguided policy based on what he has heard from Netanyahu and from pro-Israel Trump administration figures.
Following the joint Feb. 15 Trump-Netanyahu White House press conference, the Palestinians set themselves three goals. The first, to reinforce the two-state principle as an inviolable condition without which no diplomatic process is possible; second, to debunk what they define as “dissemination of incitement” in the new administration by Netanyahu against Abbas and the Palestinians; and third, which has already been achieved, to open a communications channel with the White House after it had seemed for long weeks that Trump was oblivious to the Palestinians.
“I don’t know what worried us more,” said the Palestinian source. “Whether it was Trump talking offhandedly about one state and two states as if the issue wasn’t a cardinal one, or the fact that he swallowed hook, line and sinker Netanyahu’s oft-repeated mantra that the PA incites against Israel and teaches its children to hate Israel from an early age.”
The speed with which Pompeo arranged a White House invitation surprised the Palestinians. Trump’s call came less than a month after Pompeo’s visit to PA headquarters and even before the March arrival in the region of presidential envoy (representative for international negotiations) Jason Greenblatt. The proffered invitation put Team Trump into overdrive to prepare the Palestinian president for a meeting that could rightly be defined as “crucial.”
The PA’s top officials still don’t know what to make of Greenblatt, who is tasked with getting a diplomatic process back on track. This is an observant, Orthodox Jew, who studied at the Har Etzion yeshiva in the settlement of Elon Shvut in the West Bank, and is considered a fervent supporter of Israeli settlements there. Is there a chance of his understanding the difficulties Abbas faces and the despair of the Palestinians? Will he be able to convey the facts to Trump in an objective manner without adopting a staunch, one-sided pro-Israel approach? These are substantive questions that the Palestinians have about many of those Trump has named to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For now, the Palestinians have decided to treat Greenblatt as they do Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In other words, to set aside their concerns and focus on convincing the president that Abbas wishes to reach a fitting diplomatic arrangement with Israel.
The Palestinian source says that for now, Trump does not intend to present Abbas with any type of plan, only to discuss the principles and course for renewing negotiations with Israel — in other words, to get to know Abbas personally and hear his positions.
“Everyone understands that Trump intends to bring other sides into the negotiations, especially Egypt and Jordan, and indirectly Saudi Arabia, too,” the source said. As for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Palestinians will seek to learn from Trump how he sees Russia’s role in a comprehensive regional move. The Palestinians are hoping that the White House meeting takes place before Abbas’ scheduled Kremlin meeting in May.
At this stage, Team Trump is recommending that Abbas insist on resuming negotiations with Israel where they left off in the past and not start from scratch. But given that Trump is intent on obliterating every vestige of the Obama administration, this might not be so simple.