The problem is that almost nobody else is buying it. No official Israeli delegation will be present, though a group of Israeli business executives and a prominent retired general will attend. And the conference has been rejected outright by the Palestinian political leadership and virtually the entirety of the Palestinian business community. They view President Trump and his allies as anything but honest brokers after their two-year pursuit of anti-Palestinian policies.
Undaunted, the White House is pressing ahead. In an op-ed published Sunday, Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s special representative for the negotiations, said the Bahrain summit was the “opportunity of a generation” and scolded leading Palestinian officials for not “supporting a better future for their people.”
Greenblatt’s chiding echoed the impatience of White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and ostensible lead U.S. envoy on Middle East affairs. In an interview with Axios this month, Kushner said he didn’t care if the Palestinians “trusted” him as an interlocutor. And given all the unilateral actions taken by the Trump administration to undermine the Palestinian cause in the past two years, there is little chance of his earning their trust.
More controversial is Kushner’s indicating that he thought Palestinians were at present not capable of governing themselves. “The hope is, is that over time, they can become capable of governing,” he said, also saying that he wasn’t sure whether they deserve full sovereignty or freedom from Israeli military interference.
To the Trump administration’s critics — and to Palestinians — such rhetoric was telling. Kushner’s remarks were a “prime example of colonial language,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, told a Tuesday briefing organized by the Arab Center Washington. She added that “it’s not just a reflection of a racist, colonial mentality, but a lack of understanding” of the aspirations of millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
“This issue is not whether we deserve our rights,” Ashrawi said, “but that we need our freedom.”
The veteran Palestinian academic and rights advocate was speaking to a Washington audience via a video link because the Trump administration last month denied her a visa to travel to the United States. Though the State Department gave no official reason for the denial, Ashrawi said she suspected it was connected to her vehement criticism of Trump administration policies. She described the move as “petty and vindictive.”
The denial is also conspicuous because Ashrawi has been a fixture in the Palestinian establishment and a proponent of the two-state solution long championed by the United States. She has met in Washington with every U.S. administration since that of President George H.W. Bush. Her ostracism, she suggested, is a sign of how profoundly the Trump administration yokes its agenda to that of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and disregards Palestinian grievances.
She added that Kushner and Greenblatt are mistaken if they think any other Palestinian interlocutors beyond the traditional leadership would give them a more generous hearing. “The Palestinian public as a whole is much more inflamed than the leadership,” she said.
The United States has gone from being “extremely biased to being complicit” in the occupation, Ashrawi said, pointing to Trump’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, close the U.S. Consulate that catered to Palestinians and cut funding to Palestinian aid programs. “They are not just apologists” for Israeli hegemony, she said, “but advocates.”
That position was underscored this month by Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Speaking to the New York Times, he said Israel had the right to annex parts of the West Bank. That Friedman, a known proponent of Jewish settlements deemed illegal by international law, would make that comment isn’t so surprising. But it is surprising that the top U.S. official in Israel would. No previous Republican or Democratic administration would have publicly endorsed such a move. But Friedman’s stance reflects the right-wing political status quo in Israel, which is wholly uninterested in allowing the emergence of an independent Palestinian state. And it seems to now also echo the thinking in the White House.
“A not-so-hidden Administration agenda is clearly focused on not just killing the two-state solution (which Trump and company have all but abandoned), but making it harder for succeeding administrations to embrace, which would surely be the case if much of the West Bank is unilaterally annexed to Israel,” wrote Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat and Middle East negotiator.
Ashrawi said that the Trump administration has “treated one side as definitely inferior.” She likened Kushner and Greenblatt’s commitments to driving economic prosperity in the region to an offer to “make your prison cell a bit more palatable.” And she pointed to myriad earlier diplomatic initiatives that promoted robust economic incentives for the Palestinians but did little to guarantee the political conditions that would end the impasse.
“The issue is not money; the issue is the occupation,” Ashrawi said, reiterating a word that she believes is absent from the Trump administration’s political lexicon.
Even if the White House doesn’t get that memo, many of its domestic rivals now do. A growing number of Democratic presidential candidates have criticized Trump’s wholesale abdication of policy in the region to Netanyahu. In a speech last week, Pete Buttigieg — the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a prominent contender in the crowded field — warned Israel against the annexation of settlements and decried Netanyahu’s turn “away from peace.”
In this, Ashrawi sees progress, noting that “the rules have been broken” in Washington over Israel as Democrats become increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian plight. She urged a potential Democratic president to “be brave enough to undo the damage” of Trump’s policies.
But that’s a political battle for another time. For now, Ashrawi wants Kushner and Greenblatt to know that they won’t be able to force Palestinian acquiescence so easily. “We are not willing to commit collective amnesia or lie down quietly to die,” she said.
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