US President Donald Trump’s phone call to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in itself a gratifying gesture. But even more so, for Abbas to be personally invited to the White House by the president of the United States to discuss the political process is a great development that comes at a time when many believed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had slipped down on the list of American priorities.
Although a specific date has yet to be fixed, with the invitation designated for the “near future”, this does not detract from its significance.
The Palestinians are truly thrilled to see signs of light at the end of the tunnel, which has been getting darker due to the events in the region, the Israeli intransigence and the international impotence in stirring the stagnant Middle Eastern political waters.
Trump declared his intention to make peace between the Arabs and the Israelis on more than one occasion and there is no reason to cast doubt on the sincerity of his good intentions.
The big question, however, is whether the undertaking is going to be that easy.
Previous US presidents and their secretaries of state who attempted to resolve this historic conflict did not fail because their intentions were not as sincere or because their quest for a Middle East peace was less enthusiastic: they failed because Israel had blocked every possible prospect for advancing the process.
Washington’s serious and meaningful efforts to convince the Israelis to accept ideas and frameworks that were specifically designed to meet all their security needs, and indeed other needs, were repeatedly thwarted.
Not only was Israel’s obstructionism not met by any US or international pressure, but, worse, Israel was often rewarded by subsequent acquiescence and appeasement.
The peace-seeking efforts of the Obama administration, particularly the relentless work of secretary of state John Kerry, were repeatedly disregarded by the Netanyahu government to the point of ridicule and humiliation, and yet, Israel was rewarded with the largest ever 10-year US aid package commitment of $38 billion.
By being guaranteed continued impunity for its constant violations of international law, as well as diplomatic protection at the UN, mainly by the US, Israel had no reason to abandon its extremist policies or to slow down on its frenzied colonisation of occupied Palestinian lands in the hope that the more facts they create on the ground the less the prospects for the rise of a Palestinian state next door are, no matter how peaceful such a state would be.
This privileged Israeli position is further enhanced by the prevailing situation in the region.
With many Arab states entangled in regional conflicts, locked in devastating wars against each other or mobilising every possible potential to fight terrorist organisations, Israel is certain to feel free from any pressure, let alone any threat, from its Arab neighbours.
And with the situation in he region as chaotic and as self-consumed as it is, the Palestinians ended up without any of the vital Arab support needed to take any bold moves against an occupation running unchallenged for more than five decades.
If there was any change since the new US administration took up office earlier this year, it was clearly in favour of Israel’s harder line policies.
Based on Trump’s campaign promises and the appointment of an American ambassador to Tel Aviv known for his total commitment to Israel’s settlement expansion and the transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem, Netanyahu has every reason to believe that the wind is firmly blowing in his sails.
Except for the fact that the US embassy has not been relocated and for Trump’s request that Netanyahu “holds back on settlements a little bit”, not much change can be expected of the new US administration vis-à-vis Israel.
For Israel to respond favourably to any new US moves, its current leader may expect additional concessions because they have rejected all offers on the table so far, however favourable.
If this happens, it will widen the gap between the two conflicting sides’ positions because it is impossible for the Palestinians to lower their ceiling any further.
Nevertheless, the PA president cannot decline the Trump offer.
It is a great signal from the most important world leader with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to want to discuss the issue.
Other than lowering a life-saving rope to a sinking PA, which is good in itself, the Palestinians have not got much to lose.
Either the effort will succeed, by yielding a major breakthrough towards ending the occupation and resolving a century-old conflict, or the Israelis will again bear responsibility for the failure of the initiative.
Jayson Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy to the Middle East Peace Process, is due in Israel and the PA territory this week to listen to ideas from both sides on how Washington should formulate new peace proposals.
The visit may also determine the timing of the PA president’s visit to Washington.
But, according to a Times of Israel report last Sunday, Netanyahu will ask Greenblatt’s approval for the construction of a new settlement, rather than heed Trump’s advice to “hold back”.
Haaretz also reported (on March 13) that Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman cautioned the US against trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal on the basis of land for peace without also including population transfer.
“The first takeaway is that any attempt to solve the Palestinian issue on the basis of land for peace will be dead on arrival. The only way to reach a sustainable solution is land swaps and population transfers as part of a general regional agreement,” he wrote.
“It can’t be that there will be a Palestinian state without any Jews — 100 per cent Palestinian — and alongside that Israel will be a binational state with 22 per cent Palestinians,” Liberman wrote on his Facebook in anticipation of Greenblatt’s visit.
These not very encouraging signs from Israel are not surprising.
As such, I have no hope that any progress, let alone a breakthrough, is likely to happen.
At the least, the initiative will create activity, rejuvenate hope and keep many people busy for some time.
I clearly see another round of the same cycle that has been vainly rotating for years.
It will again turn around itself ending up landing its riders, probably in a year’s time, exactly where they started.