RAMALLAH, West Bank (AFP) — US President Donald Trump will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday for their first face-to-face talks, with the PA leader hoping the billionaire businessman’s unpredictable approach can inject life into long-stalled peace efforts.
Abbas makes the trip to Washington while politically unpopular back home, but hoping Trump can pressure Israel into concessions he believes are necessary to salvage a two-state solution to the decades long conflict.
PA officials have seen the Israeli-Palestinian conflict overshadowed by global concerns such as the Syrian war and the Islamic State terror group, and want Trump’s White House to bring it back to the forefront.
“Palestinians are hoping that Trump’s unpredictability might play in their favor,” one Jerusalem-based European official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“They are going to be very disappointed. They can’t be sure of anything.”
Examples were seen early on, with Trump appearing to back away from the US commitment to the two-state solution when he met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February.
He said he would support a single state if it led to peace, delighting many Israeli right-wingers who want to see their country annex most of the West Bank.
Trump also vowed to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a prospect that alarmed Palestinians but which has been put on the back burner for now.
At the same time, he urged Israel to hold back on settlement building in the West Bank, a longstanding concern of Palestinians and the international community, who view settlements as an impediment to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state
One of Trump’s top advisers, Jason Greenblatt, held wide-ranging talks with both Israelis and Palestinians during a visit in March.
Abbas and Trump spoke by phone on March 11.
Trump’s unpredictability is far from Abbas’s only concern, with polls suggesting most Palestinians want the 82-year-old to resign.
Abbas’s term was meant to expire in 2009, but he has remained in office with no elections held.
The bitter split between Abbas’s Fatah party, based in the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist terror group that runs the Gaza Strip, has also taken a new turn in recent days.
Some analysts say it seems Abbas is seeking to increase pressure on Hamas in the coastal strip, but he risks being blamed for worsening conditions in the enclave of two million people.
Israeli officials say the PA, which is dominated by Abbas’s Fatah party, has begun refusing to pay Israel for electricity it supplies to Gaza.
Rights activists and Israeli military officials have warned that exacerbating an already severe power shortage in the strip, which was been largely under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade for 10 years, could be catastrophic.
The reported move comes after the PA announced earlier in April it would temporarily cut stipends to its Gaza civil servants.
The PA said it was forced into cutbacks by falling foreign aid, but others alleged it could be aimed at stirring discontent in Gaza and destabilizing Hamas’s rule there.
With those difficulties in mind, Abbas may face demands from Trump that could be “political suicide” for him to implement, the European official said.
Such demands may include stopping payments to families of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned by Israel, a policy heavily criticized by Netanyahu as encouraging further violence.
US lawmakers have also strongly condemned the stipends to the families of Palestinian terrorists and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) reintroduced a bill in March that would cut off US funding to the PA as a result of the payments.
Doing so could further open Abbas to accusations of bending to Israel’s will, particularly with one of his rivals in Fatah, convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti, leading a hunger strike involving hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails since April 17.
Barghouti is serving five life sentences over his role directing terror attacks in the Second Intifada, but he is popular and polls suggest he could win the presidency of the PA in an election.
Trump has spoken of reviving the idea of a regional peace initiative, pulling in countries such as Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab nations to have signed peace treaties with Israel.
Both Abbas and Trump have recently met Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah II.
After meeting Abbas on Saturday, Sissi urged Washington to help restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Jamal Shubaki, the PA ambassador to Egypt, said Abbas, Sissi and Abdullah shared the same goal of explaining “to the new American administration their attachment to the Arab peace initiative.”
The proposal made in 2002 holds out normalized ties between Arab nations and Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem, the return of refugees and other key Palestinian demands.
Abbas’s visit also comes amid speculation about when Trump will visit Israel.
Israeli officials and media have said that talks about a visit were underway, with the trip tentatively scheduled for May 22.