Jun 19,2018 – JORDAN TIMES – Osama Al Sharif
All eyes will be on Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Jason Greenblatt, the White House special envoy to the Middle East, as they embark on a five-state visit at the end of this week. What makes this visit different from previous ones is that it will mark the first solid step towards the launching of Trump’s proposed plan for a comprehensive settlement of the Palestine question. And it appears that salvaging the Gaza Strip will be the main focus of the trip.
The two emissaries will visit Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Israel reports have suggested that the Trump administration will ask for hundreds of millions of dollars from Gulf States to be invested in economic projects in Gaza in an attempt to calm the security situation there and generate momentum before the White House presents its Middle East peace plan, according to Haaretz. These projects will include building a solar energy project near Al Arish in northern Sinai to tackle Gaza’s endemic electricity shortage. Another strategic project, which will take years to complete, is dedicating a seaport, either in Israel or in Sinai, to facilitate the flow of goods. The Israeli government has been discussing the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza as part of US sponsored efforts.
The focus on Gaza is not new. Last March, the White House hosted an international meeting on Gaza, which was attended by 20 nations, including representatives of Arab states and Israel, but not the Palestinian Authority (PA). The White House issued a statement that said: “The situation in Gaza must be solved for humanitarian reasons and for ensuring the security of Egypt and Israel. It is also a necessary step toward reaching a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, including Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank”.
Ironically, the Washington meeting came two months after the US slashed its annual funding for UNRWA by half, raising questions about the future of Palestine refugees and making the lives of two million Gazans, including 1.3 million refugees, even more difficult.
The PA had suspended ties with the Trump administration following the latter’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy there. President Mahmoud Abbas had rejected all offers to talk with US emissaries, while Palestinian officials accused Washington of taking steps to create a Palestinian state in Gaza as part of Trump’s “ultimate deal”.
Efforts to reconcile Fateh and Hamas, under Egyptian auspices, have failed and Abbas has stepped up what is seen as collective punishment against the beleaguered Gaza Strip. On the other hand, Hamas leadership has been working with the Egyptians to normalise ties and open the Rafah border crossing in an attempt to alleviate worsening conditions in Gaza. Some reports suggested that Hamas and Israel were engaged in indirect talks to reach a long-term truce that would ease the 10-year economic blockade.
The US had placed Hamas on its terror list back in 1997, and earlier this year, it designated the group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, as a terrorist. But how will current US efforts to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Gaza be reconciled with its official position from Hamas, which remains firmly in control? Despite its hardline position against Israel and the United States, Hamas leadership has taken steps to adjust its charter; recognising the 1967 borders but not Israel, and severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
But Hamas is in no position to bargain. Various international agencies have warned of the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the strip. Hamas has become increasingly unpopular and the same can be said of President Abbas. But the PA’s refusal to meet its responsibilities towards its own employees in Gaza has done little to loosen Hamas’ strong grip on power or force it to cave in.
If the US emissaries are successful in their bid to secure Gulf funding along with Egyptian and Israeli commitment to provide generous economic incentives to Gazans, it would be interesting to see how Hamas will react. With Abbas under pressure and with limited options at his disposal, Hamas would not hesitate to step in as an alternative to the failing PA. That will require it to abandon its ties with Iran, Turkey and Hizbollah and adopt a pragmatic position on Israel and a final settlement. That is easier said than done. There will have to be a price to be exacted in exchange for an economic lifeline and a political recognition.
The fear, of course, is that Kushner and Greenblatt are following a far right Israeli playbook; one that limits Palestinian statehood to Gaza and paves the way for the annexation of most of the West Bank. And this may end up being the only thing that Trump’s “ultimate deal” will deliver.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman