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Daoud Kuttab

The art of the deal: Trump must engage Palestinians

The idea of bypassing indigenous people is not new, writes Kuttab [AFP]

Date of publication: 14 February, 2017

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Comment: If Trump plans to work with Arab rather than the Palestinian leaders themselves, the road ahead will be a rocky one, writes Daoud Kuttab.
It is unlikely that by the time Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meets with President Trump tomorrow, the US government will have formulated an alternative policy to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Some of the early signs emerging from Washington do however indicate the disastrous and dangerous path that may be afoot.
One of the basic elements of any serious policy aimed at reaching peace between Israelis and Palestinians, requires genuine engagement with both sides of the conflict on clearly accepted principles. In President Trump's first three weeks in office he has spoken to the Israeli prime minister twice and he will be meeting with Netanyahu at the White House this Wednesday.

The number of phone calls to the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas however, has so far been a resounding zero. Even Abbas' attempts to call the newly elected American president have been rebuffed.
It comes as no surprise that Donald Trump is biased to Israel. After all one of Trump's largest election contributors was the Las Vegas Casino magnet Sheldon Edelson, a fan or Netanyahu and his right-wing pro-settlement coalition partners.

What is strange, is the absence of the very optics of even handedness, as the US president sets the stage for his publicly declared breakthrough in the stale conflict, with the help of his son in law, 
Jered Kushner.
The idea of bypassing indigenous people is not new, but it has led to failure on numerous occasions. In the Palestinian context both Arabs, Israelis and the US over the years have tried to get around the issue of representation, only to have to return to respecting the will of the people.

Decades earlier, Egypt and Jordan had claimed to represent Palestinians, until they reluctantly gave on this at the Rabat Arab League 
Summit in 1974 when the Palestine Liberation Organisation was recognised as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
If President Trump, the author of 'The art of the deal' is genuinely interested in striking a good Middle East deal, it is essential that the aspirations and needs of both sides are addressed
Unwilling to work with the PLO, Israel turned a blind eye in Gaza to the Mujama al-Islami in order to create a counter force to the nationalist PLO. This grassroots Islamic charity was established in 1973 by Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, and eventually turned into Hamas, routing the PLO from Gaza.

In the West Bank, the Israeli army in the 1980s tried to create what was called the village leagues with the idea that the mostly rural West Bank should be run by collaborative 
village leaders rather than the PLO city leaders. That attempt also failed miserably.
Even within the American conflict, this idea was tried by a Republican president, only to fail once again.
President George H. Bush, working with secretary of state James Baker pushed for the Madrid peace conference by forcing non PLO Palestinian leaders to represent their people within a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. The effort to bypass Palestinians backfired when Israeli and PLO officials reached a secret deal in Oslo without the knowledge of Washington.
Israel's Prime Minister Yitshaq Shamir had at the 1992 Madrid Peace Conference famously revealed the Israeli approach to talks, saying "I would have conducted the autonomy negotiations for 10 years." 

Benjamin Netanyahu who was the spokesman for the Israeli delegation to Madrid has now become the longest serving prime minister, and under his watch the number of settlers had reached around 650,000 by the beginning of 2017. Israelis clearly are happy to negotiate
 ad nauseam so long as they keep controlling Palestinian lands and illegally transferring its citizens to live in exclusively Jewish settlements.
A good deal for Palestinians requires not only talking directly to Palestinians, but also understanding their basic aspiration of wanting to live independently and freely
The Madrid talks with the Israeli condition of joint Jordanian-Palestinian representation didn't succeed, but instead an alternative secret track between Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas produced the Oslo Accords that included mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.
The Trump Administration's potential attempts to negotiate with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to yield a more compromising position towards Israel than that of the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Indeed Washington's efforts to bypass the Palestinians were hinted at recently in talks about a policy that would attempt to involve some of the moderate leaders of the Arab world.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas sensed this new approach when he made a surprise visit to Amman prior to King Abdullah II's trip to Washington DC. While the King's short meeting with Trump produced lukewarm condemnation of Israeli settlement activities, it refocused attention on American plans to work with Arab leaders rather than Palestinians.
If President Trump, the author of "The art of the deal" is genuinely interested in striking a good Middle East deal, it is essential that the aspirations and needs of both sides are addressed. In fact, Trump told Israel Hayom - an Israeli newspaper owned by his major donor, Sheldon Edelson - what he believes are the essentials of a good deal. "It has to be good for everybody. No deal is good if it is not good for everybody."
A good deal for Palestinians requires not only talking directly to Palestinians, but also understanding their basic aspiration of wanting to live independently and freely without the boots and colonies of the Israeli occupiers.


Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on @daoudkuttab


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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