Saeb Erekat: Forget Trump’s U.S. as the Mideast’s Mediator

February 13, 2018
Forget Trump’s U.S. as the Mideast’s Mediator
By Saeb Erekat

A year ago, we in Palestine, like everyone else, did not know what a President Trump would bring. Today, we know: He has taken Israel’s side in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle while dismissing the roles of international law, international organizations and American diplomatic tradition in the Middle East peace process.

In doing so, he has disqualified America from being the sole broker in that effort. The question now is whether this opens an opportunity to seek peace by other paths or means the end of any chance for peace.

President Trump’s Middle East team has made the whole region ask what he might be thinking. How could people financially and ideologically committed to Israel’s enterprise of colonial settlement in the West Bank, which violates international law and seeks to eat up ever more of the land the world recognizes as occupied Palestinian territory, mediate for a fair solution? The naming of David Friedman, who is strongly linked to the settlement enterprise, as ambassador to Israel showed that Mr. Trump was not interested in listening to the Palestinians or to the many mainstream Jewish and pro-Israeli Americans who, alongside Arab-American organizations and dozens of members of Congress, opposed the appointment.

The Trump administration, which blames the Palestinians for the recent stalemate, does not mention that our president, Mahmoud Abbas, tried to constructively engage with the administration. Last year, between Feb. 7 and Nov. 30 we had over 30 meetings with administration officials, including four between the two presidents. Throughout that period, a Palestinian team took initiatives in presenting detailed and thought-out positions, maps and responses to the other side’s positions.

It brought us little. Instead, President Trump broke with decades of American policy and stopped criticizing Israel’s human rights violations and continuous settlement construction. The administration’s excuse for not endorsing a two-state solution — that it would make Americans biased — changed quickly to a possibility of approval if both sides accepted one. But that was no concession; it gave Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, veto power over the two-state solution.

That is ironic, because three decades ago, the United States made accepting a two-state solution a pivotal condition for opening official talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. When the P.L.O. recognized the 1967 border with Israel, this created a consensus in Palestine, Israel, the United States and the rest of the world on a path toward peace.

Now President Trump has given cover to the most radical views among Israel’s increasingly right-wing public and officials, and his team refuses to confront Israel’s government on any issue. We have presented them with all our positions on achieving lasting peace but have not received feedback. Because the current Israeli government rejects the two-state solution, Jason Greenblatt, Mr. Trump’s representative for international negotiations, and Jared Kushner, his Middle East envoy, refuse to discuss any of the core issues necessary for peace.

It is as if we have gone back in time — to before Oslo — without acknowledging the painful compromises the Palestinians have made for peace, including recognizing Israel and trying to build a state on just 22 percent of the land in the historic Palestine of 1948.

In one meeting, we told President Trump’s envoys how important Jerusalem is to Palestine. While we acknowledge and respect its deep connection to the three major monotheistic religions, the city is also the heart of our people — Muslims and Christians — as a nation. So we support making Jerusalem an open city with free access for all, and a sovereign Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Instead, President Trump decided last month to take Jerusalem “off the table” — a step that encouraged Israelis to pursue policies in occupied East Jerusalem that seek to forcibly transfer the Palestinian population out of the city.

Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital violated the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 478 and general charter prohibitions on the acquisition of territory by force; it also contradicted a declaration by the United States in 1991 that the final status of Jerusalem should be decided by negotiations, and that the United States doesn’t recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem or the extension of its municipal boundaries.

Now President Trump is engaged in another power play — to take the issue of refugees off the table. He is doing that by drastically reducing American funding of the relief agency known as UNRWA, a United Nations organization not tied to the P.L.O. that provides desperately needed services to millions of Palestinian refugees. What will be next? The “ultimate deal” promised by President Trump has been transformed into the “ultimatum deal.”

When President Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he put the Palestinians in an impossible position and joined Israel in a “blame game.” But this is not a game to us. This is about our very existence and upholding international law. The policy falls so far outside the international legal and political consensus that it has made the United States ineligible to play the role of sole broker in the Middle East.

Palestine has been a failed test for the international community. The world must start now to hold Israel accountable when it violates international law, and to create an international umbrella for negotiations. Since President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, we have met with leaders in countries that could help seek new peace — Russia, China, Japan, South Africa and India, alongside members of the European Union. Next Tuesday, President Abbas will address the Security Council to present a vision of peace. And we are planning to move toward national elections in which all Palestinians, including our diaspora, can take part, with the goals of better representation, more support for our refugees and strengthening our people’s steadfastness under occupation.

President Trump, for the wrong reasons, has put the issue of Palestine back on the international agenda. If his administration’s inability to be an honest broker opens the way for other parties to become mediators, Palestine can engage in meaningful discussions on a just and final peace. This must begin with a time frame for ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state on the 1967 border, with East Jerusalem as its capital — a proposal offered and reaffirmed often by the Arab League. Palestinians would attain their inalienable rights, and Israel would enjoy normal relations with the region.

Only such an international effort can address the unequal power balances, uphold international law and present a clear future of hope, freedom, justice and peace.

Back to top