Palestinians insist that there is no back channel with Washington

Is there or isn’t there a back channel of talks between the Palestinians and the US administration?

al-monitor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a Security Council meeting at the United Nations, New York, Feb. 11, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.

Mar 6, 2020

When Yasser Abed Rabbo led a four-man PLO delegation to meet with US Ambassador to Tunis Robert Peletru in 1988, the meeting was hailed as a huge breakthrough. After the 90-minute meeting, Abed Rabbo said, “We hope this dialogue will continue and we think it will continue.”

That first PLO-US meeting might be in the distant past now, but the current situation appears to be reversed. The American ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is now claiming to have secret back-channel talks with the Palestinians; the Palestinians are denying this vehemently.

Speaking Feb. 28 on the Qatari-based Al Jazeera news satellite station, Friedman claimed that the “back-channel” talks are substantive and have dealt with some of the issues seen as positive in the US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, “such as the two-state solution, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, connecting the West Bank with the Gaza Strip and investment in infrastructure and increasing the size of land offered to the Palestinians,” the Jerusalem Post cited Friedman as saying to Al Jazeera.

The Palestinian response came quickly with government spokesman Ibrahim Melhem telling the official Palestinian WAFA news agency Feb. 29 that Friedman’s claims are simply not true. Instead, Melhem noted that the peace initiative offered by President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN included a rejection of the US plan and calls for “an international mechanism with the participation of the Quartet and the UN Security Council.”

Ghassan Khatib, former minister of labor in the Palestinian government, also reiterated his doubts about a back channel. Speaking to Al-Monitor, Khatib said that Friedman is not telling the truth. “I believe that Friedman is lying, because if a secret back channel actually existed, he would not have revealed that.” 

Khatib applauded the Palestinian boycott of the Americans calling it the right response. “I believe that boycotting the United States is the correct response so as not to give any credence to the attempts at marking the US plan in the Arab region and internationally.” 

Khatib believes that the Trump administration exaggerated a lot in its bias toward Israel and left no room for any relationship. “What is needed now is to go back and move toward international law rather than these new positions that are totally unacceptable.”

While Palestinian officials and pundits have denied the existence of a secret back channel, many do admit the existence of security and intelligence cooperation. In fact, Abbas himself has never denied the existence of such talks with US intelligence services.

A senior Palestinian Fatah official who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said that if the "deal of the century" was not the only topic of consideration, there would be a number of issues to talk about, especially human rights and the difficulties that Israel is causing for Palestinians living under occupation. 

“The Palestinian leadership is well aware of the American power and no one in their right mind would boycott a superpower. But we are sure that if we tried to make an overture it would be used politically and would boomerang in our face politically,” the source said.

Abbas himself alluded to this problem telling the Arab League Feb. 1 that when he spoke to Trump against the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the US president claimed in press reviews that he spoke about his moves with Abbas. “This is why I refused to accept his deal of the century [to read] or phone calls or messages.”

Palestinians are in a tight spot as there seems to be no wiggle room available for the leadership to cooperate with the Americans without appearing to be legitimizing what they consider a very bad deal that has been offered without their input or their participation.

Thirty-two years have passed since that first PLO-US meeting in Tunis. The key players that made that meeting happen have all disappeared with the exception of Abbas who is holding on to his moderate position and insisting that international law, and not a unilateral plan made by the president’s 39-year old son-in-law, Jared Kushner, should be the reference point.

The question that still requires an answer is how long the Palestinians can boycott the world’s superpower that has direct effect on the lives and future of Palestine. While some might argue that such talks are necessary, the leadership is trying to buy time with the hope that the American people will remove the current resident of the White house during the upcoming November elections in the United States and bring back some sanity in America’s foreign policy, especially toward the Middle East conflict. In the meantime, the Palestinian leadership is taking a wait-and-see approach. However, many are hoping that this downtime can be used to reach the badly needed Palestinian unity that in part led to the difficult position the Palestinians find themselves in today.

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