There was something of a motivational speaker about President Donald Trump as he welcomed Mahmoud Abbas, the geronto-crat at the helm of the Palestinian Authority for the last 12 years, to the White House on May 3.
At their joint appearance, Trump was confident and beaming. Abbas, in turn, came across as eager and respectful. As Trump surely knows, to sell something you need to believe in it — and to look like you believe in it. In tone and body language, both leaders pulled that off in their comments on prospects for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
“Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians — let’s see if we can prove them wrong,” Trump declared. Whether his administration has the mettle to pull off a lasting agreement that will suffer many false starts along the way remains very much an open question.
For his part, Abbas gave the impression of playing ball more than he ever did than when President Barack Obama was in charge. During Obama’s second term, Abbas refused direct talks with Israel following the collapse of the 2013-14 negotiations, pursuing a policy of sulky unilateralism that aimed to secure international recognition of a Palestinian state.
For now, this is paying off for Abbas, whose principal goal is to remain in power. After taking full control of his Fatah faction last November, Abbas in recent weeks has moved against his Hamas rivals in Gaza. And this is the sort of resolve Abbas doubtless feels will impress Trump.
For the same reason, Trump would do well to realize that what Abbas can actually deliver is rather limited in terms of both substance and endurance.
Hence, if any peace process is to survive all the way to a written agreement, American officials need to confront the elephant in the room — namely, who succeeds Abbas, 82. Any policy plan will need to account for scenarios without Abbas.
Can Trump’s enthusiasm for peace enable the emergence of a Palestinian leader who is willing to participate in good-faith negotiations — as Abbas repeatedly says he is — but who is not tainted by corruption, political back-stabbing and illegal retention of power, as Abbas is? It is a tall order, which is why the president may eventually need to settle for much less than a glittering peace-signing ceremony in the Rose Garden.
Ben Cohen is senior editor of TheTower.org and The Tower Magazine. This article was provided by JNS.org.