Dec 26,2017 – JORDAN TIMES – Osama Al Sharif
Despite world-wide sympathy for the Palestinians in the wake of the unilateral American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, reaction to President Mahmoud Abbas’ declaration that Washington has disqualified itself as an honest broker and was no longer accepted as a peace mediator has been mostly muted. Abbas has gone as far as saying that he was rejecting beforehand any peace proposal that is expected to come from the White House next year. He might have gone too far with such assertions.
It is true that President Trump’s Jerusalem declaration constituted a departure from a 50-year bipartisan policy on Jerusalem and is now perceived as a reckless shift in US position. It is also true that, as French President Emanuel Macron told Abbas in Paris last week, that the US may have marginalised itself as a mediator. Furthermore and in the view of many, the US announcement, vague as it was, has delivered a fatal blow to more than 25 years of US-sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But to believe that the US has no place in a future peace settlement is fanciful at best.
For now, contacts between the White House peace team and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have been suspended, at Abbas’ orders. The ageing Palestinian leader is pushing ahead with unilateral actions of his own; requesting membership in 20 UN and international bodies and mulling ways to gain full recognition as a state under occupation. Israel will surely react and escalation by both sides will only complicate an already complex situation.
But when the current storm over Trump’s decision dissipates — and it will at some point — the Palestinians will have to seek international endorsement for a resumption of peace talks under new circumstances. The biggest hurdle will come from Israel’s side. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now relieved that he will not be under pressure to respond to any peace plan coming from Washington so long as the Palestinians maintain their rejection of US mediation. Furthermore, he can stick to his position that only Washington is recognised by Israel as an honest broker.
The Palestinians need to think clearly about their options. They can take their case back to the UN, but with US objections they are not expected to achieve much. Replacing the US with another player, like France or Russia, will not work and neither country has expressed willingness to do so. Reviving the role of the International Quartet is an option and the Palestinians can request that other countries and bodies join in, but while this move will enjoy international support it will have to cross the US and Israeli hurdles.
The sad fact is that even as the US loses some of its control in this region, as Russian and French influence gain traction, the special relationship between America and Israel will not be affected any time soon and the same applies to Washington’s griphold over peace negotiations.
Added to Palestinian frustration is the fact that Iran’s regional threat continues to overshadow the issues of Israel’s occupation and the two-state solution as the only mean to end it. Since the Palestinians have turned their backs on Washington, the Trump administration may decide to put off plans to unveil its own peace proposal leaving Abbas to hang out to dry.
Waiting it out, as in holding his position until the Trump era is over, may prove suicidal for Abbas. Israel will use the diplomatic hiatus to speed up plans to colonise what remains of East Jerusalem and alter its cultural and demographic character forever. Else he can step down and allow a new leadership to take over and perhaps resume contacts with the Americans.
Meanwhile, Abbas must remove remaining obstacles threatening the fragile and shaky reconciliation efforts between Palestinian factions. He must give the go-ahead to plans to reform and restructure the Palestine Liberation Organisation as the only all encompassing national platform. And he must be ready to take drastic measures that could include the disbanding of the PA to raise the cost of Israel’s occupation. Unless Israel feels the need and the urgency to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians it will never be compelled to come to the negotiations table.
It took more than two decades for Abbas to realise that the United States cannot be an honest broker or fair mediator. He is now convinced that it should not hold an exclusive right to such mediation. Instead the stark reality is that the US is the only country that, in theory, can apply pressure on the Israelis. And as we have seen during the Obama presidency there are limits to US sway on Israel. Abbas needs the international community to convince the US to do so. After all is said and done and unless the regional balance of power changes dramatically the US role in finding a lasting peace remains essential and indispensable.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.