President Donald Trump welcomed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House on Wednesday, putting a renewed focus on prospects for peace with Israel – a goal that has long eluded previous U.S. leaders.
Abbas and a small entourage arrived outside the West Wing in a black limousine shortly before noon and were greeted by Trump. The Palestinian leader and his advisers are weighing efforts to restart peace negotiations with Israel with the aim of securing Palestinian borders, a capital and a state.
“It is a great honor to have the president with us,” Trump said after taking Abbas into the Oval Office. “We are going to have lunch, we are going to have discussions.”
Trump, who in February met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, has called a possible Palestinian-Israeli accord “the toughest deal in the world” but one he is determined to try to broker. Some analysts are skeptical, however, that Trump will ultimately succeed in an arena where his predecessors have fallen short.
“Every president, when they come into office, thinks they can bring about an Israel-Palestinian deal,” said James Gelvin, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Everyone fails, and then they turn their attention to issues that are more pressing. This is probably going to be the same sort of thing.”
Dennis A. Ross, counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former American envoy to the Middle East, said that although immediate results are unlikely, the meetings could set the table for later progress.
“You can’t solve the conflict right now. The gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians are too wide. We are at the lowest ebb in Israeli-Palestinian perceptions of each other since I’ve been working on this,” Ross said. “But you can create a sense of possibility, you can break the stalemate, you can show that something is possible. And that’s what I think can happen here – you can show that a sense of possibility exists.”
Abbas, 82, arrived in Washington as a weakened political figure. Unpopular among his own people, there are questions to his legitimacy as leader of the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank. Its rival, the militant Hamas group, holds the Gaza Strip.
Trump has spoken with Abbas by phone, but their White House meeting is their first face-to-face encounter.
Among other challenges, the new Republican president is facing pressure from members of his party to demand that the Palestinian Authority end financial payments to the families of Palestinians who commit violence against Israelis. A group of Republican senators has introduced legislation to cut off American aid if that demand isn’t met.
“I think the thrust of the meeting will be on one hand prepared to work with making clear what they expect from him,” Ross said.
Ross said the meeting is important to Abbas because it elevates him in the eyes of other Middle East leaders. “The administration is basically making him relevant, and they’re making him relevant at a time when all of the Sunni Arab leaders want to make sure the Trump administration won’t withdraw from the region,” Ross said.
During Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu in February, administration officials pushed for restraint on the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank on land the Palestinians want for a future state. Those talks ended with no firm agreement. There are about 400,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, which is known by its ancient names of Judea and Samaria by many Israelis.
Trump, who campaigned for president as an unwavering ally of Israel, has sounded an optimistic note about ending the generations-old dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians. “I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said in an interview last week with the Reuters news agency. “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians – none whatsoever.”
Trump sent his new Middle East envoy, former real estate attorney Jason Greenblatt, to Jerusalem and Ramallah in March to explore the possibilities of a U.S. role in a peace process. The visit appeared to be well received by both sides. Trump also named his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as his point man for making peace in the Middle East.
The efforts of the Obama administration ultimately bore no fruit. Nine months of peace talks under then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry broke down amid bitter recriminations by Israelis and Palestinians in April 2014.
Since then, there has been a spike in violence by lone-wolf-style Palestinian assailants, leading to tough countermeasures by Israeli security forces.
“Abbas has hitched his horse for a long time to the Americans and a negotiated settlement, and so he really wants to deliver,” Gelvin said. “The problem is: He doesn’t really have a partner in order to be able to deliver. The Israelis are not anxious to deliver.”
Wednesday’s visit lacks much of the pomp of previous visits by world leaders. Rather than hold a full-blown news conference, Abbas and Trump are planning to make a joint statement during the visit. Abbas, who is not known for his oratory, typically does not hold news conferences.
Abbas will also hold a separate meeting later Wednesday with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to officials.
During Netanyahu’s White House visit in February, Trump both flattered and pressured him when the two fielded questions from journalists. During that visit Trump also made headlines by saying he “could live with” either a separate Palestinian state or a single state as a peaceful outcome.
“I want the one that both parties want,” Trump said.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · John Wagner, Ashley Parker