A fascinating process has been underway in Palestinian foreign policy since the Nov. 8, 2016, election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. The Palestinians are trying to make sense of the new international order being shaped, and at the same time they are also formulating plans for the new era. Every step made by the new president is studied, and every declaration by the president undergoes deep analysis by advisers and experts attempting to interpret its real meaning. Together, they draw conclusions and map out action and reaction plans.
One significant operative conclusion has recently come out of the frequent brainstorming at the Muqata, the Palestinian president's headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah: The classic negotiating formula created by the 1993 signing of the Oslo Accord, with the Israelis and Palestinians holding a dialogue or direct negotiations under American auspices, is a thing of the past. A Palestinian diplomatic source, speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, said this conclusion was clear even before Trump took office, but it has now been revalidated.
“There is no longer going to be a case in which the Americans are pushing Israel and the Palestinians into three-way negotiations without additional forces present,” he said. According to him, the rules of the game have changed. It is now clear to all involved that the circle of interests has expanded, and any talks will be conducted within the framework of an international conference involving several of the Arab states and led jointly by the United States and Russia.
The Palestinian thinking relies on two main reasons: The first is a clear understanding that the bitter residues of the past and deep mistrust between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would preclude any serious dialogue between them, and the second is the changes underway in the international arena. On the one hand, the new US administration is dictating game-changing rules, while on the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin is no longer sitting on the sidelines and is displaying a keen interest in becoming a central player in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the first indications of this frame of mind was a Russian initiative last December to organize a peace conference in Moscow, which never got off the ground due to Netanyahu’s objections and is now being revived by the warming ties between Washington and Moscow.
Netanyahu heads to Moscow on March 9 for another meeting with Putin, following a June 2016 meeting. In parallel, Moscow issued this week an invitation to Abbas for a working meeting at the Kremlin in May. Visits to Moscow by the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the space of two months are no coincidence. Nor is it by chance that Netanyahu is coming to meet Putin shortly after his Feb. 15 White House meeting with Trump.
When Abbas’ invitation to Moscow was officially announced, the Palestinians were obviously delighted. “When Trump embraces Netanyahu for the entire world to see, Putin is the only one who can burst the bubble of the Israeli right,” the Palestinian source said.
Palestinian attitudes toward American mediation have always been ambivalent. With every diplomatic move, the Palestinians brought up suspicions that the United States, which declares at every opportunity that Israel is its closest ally, would not treat them fairly as would an honest broker. Even in the peace talks sponsored by former Secretary of State John Kerry that combusted in the spring of 2014, the Palestinians claimed that while the Americans tried to be fair and balanced, they still displayed more understanding for Israel’s demands than for theirs.
Putin is a different kettle of fish. As my colleague Arad Nir wrote for Al-Monitor March 6, the Russian president has always been careful to vote in favor of the Palestinians and against Israel at the United Nations Security Council — and that, in itself, has a calming effect on Palestinian public opinion. Despite the warming ties between Netanyahu and Putin, Israel has never been considered an ally of Moscow. If and when a diplomatic agreement is worked out on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Palestinian public opinion will be less suspicious and more agreeable to compromise under Russian auspices and guarantees.
According to the Palestinian diplomatic source, Russian involvement in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has an additional element of importance. Participants at the brainstorming session in Abbas’ office know that Trump has generated dramatic change not just in the administration’s attitude toward Israel, but also in US-Russian relations. “This is the biggest change that has taken place, and it will have a dramatic impact on the whole world and undoubtedly on the Middle East and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, too,” the source said.
The Palestinian Authority has been avidly monitoring reports of the Trump administration’s contacts with Moscow. Trump, so they believe, will not take any unilateral steps in the Middle East without considering Putin’s position and reaction. Ramallah claims that not only will the Americans weigh possible Russian reactions, they will also coordinate future moves in public and through back channels.
One thing is clear to the Palestinians: When Abbas travels to Moscow to meet Putin in two months, the Russian leader will already have a concrete plan for Israeli-Palestinian progress, formulated, more than likely, in coordination with the Trump administration.
As aforementioned, since Trump’s election, the Palestinians have been holding marathon discussions on how to deal with the endless geopolitical changes. They believe the moves they have made so far have proven themselves impressively successful. Trump has not moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite repeated campaign pledges to do so, and he has also issued a penalty card to the Israelis to stop building settlements in contested territories. The Palestinians do not take this for granted. To get their point across, the Palestinians have in recent months enlisted everyone who has access to Trump. Now they are targeting the Russian president as the one who will sort out the mess in the region. After all, Putin is no longer just a bit player on the regional stage, and he could well get quite quickly the starring role.