Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas comes to Washington on Wednesday with a degree of cautious optimism that goes beyond flattering an American president who thrives on adoration.
Simply being invited to meet with President Trump is an important signal for Abbas. Trump has so far exceeded the Palestinians’ low expectations of him: He has not yet taken steps to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, has advised restraint on Israeli settlements, and has made Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking a priority. Abbas’s Arab allies have been hopeful about Trump, encouraging Abbas to be responsive.
Palestinian optimists have reason to believe that Trump might push diplomacy in a promising direction. He touted a regional approach that Arabs have favored for the past 15 years, since the Arab Peace Initiative. Trump is considering a trip to the Middle East at the end of this month, partly to generate diplomatic momentum. The lure of a broader peace between Israel and other Arab states could be enticing to Israelis, while Arabs could theoretically bring some levers to help the Palestinian hand.
But Trump’s regional approach appears to have been inspired by Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister has countered his critics by rejecting the notion that the absence of a deal with Palestinians prevents stronger ties with other Arabs. He assumes that Arab states see it in their interests to get closer to Israel, that Palestine is only a rhetorical priority for Arab rulers, and that they see Trump as an ally on issues they care deeply about, such as containing Iran and fighting Islamist militancy. Accordingly, Arabs may have incentives to pressure the Palestinians even more than to influence Israel. Regardless, the mere gathering of Israelis and the Arabs ahead of any deal could drive Netanyahu’s point home.
Abbas may hope to leverage American public attitudes, which surveys show favor evenhanded U.S. diplomacy. But the findings of our latest University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll (fielded by Nielsen Scarborough April 12 to 17, sample size 2,138, margin of error 2.12 percent) show reasons for Abbas to be concerned. Americans remain deeply divided on Israeli-Palestinian issues, but the opinion of the group that Trump cares about most is increasingly in the orbit of Netanyahu.
More than 40 percent of the American public, and a majority of Democrats, support imposing sanctions or more serious measures on Israel over settlement expansion.
Asked if they want Trump to lean toward Israel, the Palestinians or neither side, majorities choose neither side.
Trump, however, has been principally responsive to his core constituency, whose worldview is dramatically different from the rest of America’s. In that group, 66 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Trump voters and 81 percent of Republicans who watch Fox News want Trump to take Israel’s side. When asked to specify America’s top allies, in an open-ended question, Republicans rank Israel only after Britain and ahead of Canada.
When asked to name the leader they admire most, also in an open-ended question, Republicans named Netanyahu second only to Trump. When asked to describe Trump’s policy on Israel and the Palestinians so far, majorities say it has been leaning toward Israel, not evenhanded.
During his presidential campaign, Trump spoke of evenhanded diplomacy in the region, and later during Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, he mentioned the need to compromise. But Trump’s key advisers on this issue, such as Jason Greenblatt, the new U.S. chief negotiator, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, have taken positions on settlements that are more supportive than any U.S. administration has taken in the past 50 years. A “compromise” on settlements could mean a range of proposals: removing the settlements, ending new construction or neither. In the absence of reference to some baseline — prior agreements, U.N. resolution or past American positions on the issue — it’s impossible to know what the administration’s policy means.
In the end, there are barriers to peace that have little to do with U.S. diplomacy (political divisions in both polities, asymmetry of power, regional distractions). Abbas has little choice but to explore what Trump has in mind. But our survey shows that despite the trend in the general public toward a more evenhanded approach on the issue, that’s not the case for Trump backers. When there is a stalemate in the negotiations, interpreting why, whom to blame and how America should respond will depend on who is doing the interpretation. And in Trump’s world, Abbas has little chance to compete with Netanyahu. Whatever his personal instinct, it’s unlikely that Trump will try to twist Netanyahu’s arm — certainly not on core issues.
Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and the director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.