Daoud Kuttab is an award winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He is the author of the soon to be published book “Sesame Street, Palestine”
Something strange is happening. Palestinians seem to have stopped caring about what President Trump says.
Palestinian leaders appear to be able to see through him and understand that his administration is incapable of making the “ultimate deal” and that it is not interested in a genuine negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The unilateral American handling of the sensitive issue of Jerusalem is Exhibit A. Plans to open the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 15, the day Palestinians refer to as Nakbeh Day (“catastrophe” in Arabic) reminds Palestinians of how they lost their homes and land in 1948 and became refugees.
The pundits and spokespersons of the Palestinian leadership have decided to respond firmly but without much fanfare, realizing that they are not party to what is happening. Nasser Laham, editor of the pro-Abbas Maan News Agency, told the Saudi daily Arab News that the Palestinian message should be “that our goal is to support the steadfastness of our people in Jerusalem and not to jump at every provocative decision coming out of Washington.”
Not only is the United States not seen to be an honest broker in the decades-long conflict, but it also signals that its word is not to be taken seriously. The latest pronouncement about the embassy was made a month after Vice President Pence told Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the custodian of holy places in Jerusalem, that the embassy move will not take place until late in 2019. The lead U.S. peace envoy is seen as nothing more than a relative using his access to the president to advance his own businesses.
Even Trump’s team has not been too optimistic. Jason D. Greenblatt, assistant to the president and special representative for international negotiations, admitted in a speech in January that his team has “made very little tangible progress.”
Like the Israelis before them, American leaders today appear to be negotiating between themselves about the future of the Palestinian conflict. It became clear to the Palestinian leadership that U.S. announcements are nothing more than gimmicks aimed at pleasing the right wing of the Republican Party and Christian Zionist base of the president. The very idea that the ultra-right-wing Jewish casino magnete Sheldon Adelson wants to pump $500 million towards the building of the embassy reveals a politically bankrupt U.S. foreign policy that seems to be on sale to the highest (right-wing only) political merchants.
Palestinians also have strong reasons to believe that Trump’s cheap blackmail tricks and threats are not serious. Nations large and small have called America’s bluff and gotten away with it. When a U.N. General Assembly vote was due to take place on Jerusalem, President Trump and his envoy at the U.N. warned financial consequences to those who vote against the American will. Only seven countries voted with the United States and Israel, yet there were no costs to the 127 countries who voted against the United States. In the case of Jordan, U.S. aid was increased despite the vote against American wishes.
On peace in Palestine, U.S. officials seem to listen to only one source and deafen their ears to all other voices. Washington ignored the advice of their closest allies not only on the Jerusalem embassy, but also on cutting aid to the U.N. Reliefs and Works Agency (UNRWA) which is responsible for giving humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees. Just a few months earlier, the White House announced and implemented a suspension of some support to UNRWA, claiming that they will only release money if Palestinians go back to nonexistent peace talks. Later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Amman that the United States is looking for ways to make UNRWA more sustainable through regular multi-year funding through the United Nations, World Bank and other institutions.
The scandals that are knocking on Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their families also appear to be affecting their positions on the Middle East conflict. In Israel, the police’s recommendations to investigate Netanyahu (and possibly his wife, Sara) and charge him with bribery have weakened and distracted the prime minister. In Washington, the president’s son in law Jared Kushner, who is the lead American in the Middle East peace efforts, has had his security clearance downgraded. All the while, Trump is juggling Jerusalem while Netanyahu appears to be playing with fire on the Syrian front with Gaza.
Having finally decided to wean themselves from dependency on an American-only sponsorship of the peace process, Palestinians are realizing that there is nothing to be gained by engaging with either the current Israeli or American leaders. Palestinians continue to yearn for peace but they know that it is unlikely to come at the hands of today’s leaders in Washington and Tel Aviv.