On Wednesday May 3rd, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet for the first time with President, Donald Trump, in Washington. Trump ultimately intends to revive the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but as long as the PA doesn’t control Gaza, little progress can be made. Abbas is aware of the quagmire he is in, and started preparing for the meeting by strong-arming Hamas. By exerting financial pressure, Abbas is trying to push Hamas to show willingness to involve the PA in managing affairs Gaza’s affairs. While Abbas is trying to re-consolidate the PA’s power and repair the perception of himself as the legitimate Palestinian leader, Hamas is not going to cooperate with his efforts to marginalize them. Abbas needs help, and Trump knows it.
Since the beginning of the administration, Trump has promoted two parallel tracks in concern to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the one hand, Trump portrays himself as Israel’s “best friend” – claiming he won’t focus on settlements like his predecessor, promising to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, and hardening the U.S.’s position towards anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council. On the other hand, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, has traveled throughout the region and met with Arab and PA leaders, trying to lay the foundations for a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It was also recently reported that despite a general trend of budget cuts, the PA’s foreign aid package would increase.
Although some might see these two tracks as contradicting, they actually mutually serve the purpose of curbing extremist resistance to a prospective deal and defusing the ability of potential spoilers to derail progress.
The Trump administration understands that even if they convince Netanyahu and Abbas to enter negotiations, the two leaders currently lack the political ability to pass any kind of agreement that would inevitably entail concessions. Netanyahu is entangled in a narrow, hawkish coalition, while Abbas’s legitimacy as the sole Palestinian leader is questioned by Hamas’s control of the Gaza strip. Furthermore, even without these crucial challenges, past experiences show that whenever significant progress is achieved, Hamas heightens violence towards Israel, which strengthens the right-wing Israeli claims of the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel’s existence. Hence, the PA’s problem with Hamas is twofold – first, Hamas undermines the PA’s legitimate power of representing the Palestinian people, and second, it endangers any possibility to reach substantial progress with Israel.
As a semi-state actor, Hamas doesn’t only act as a classic terrorist group, but it also claims responsibility for the people by providing infrastructure and social services, and creating jobs. This is both Hamas’s source of strength and its Achilles heel. Since Hamas relies on its political capabilities to sustain popular support, the way to erode Hamas’s hold on the ground is not by military action, but by the PA reclaiming responsibility for the Gaza Strip and filling its role in governance. In order to succeed Hamas, the PA will have to show the Palestinian people that it can promote a better vision for the future, but also that it has the power to implement it. By increasing aid to the PA and supporting Abbas, Trump’s administration is attempting to help rebuild the PA’s legitimate role.
Time will tell how entrenched this understanding is within the administration, especially since it requires patience for change to occur on the ground. This week’s approaching meeting will play a crucial part in this scheme. Before either Israelis or Palestinians can be pushed to negotiations, it would be strategically wise to address the deteriorating political status of the Palestinian leadership, as well as the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza. The solutions to both of these problems start and end by strengthening the PA’s stature and ability to govern in all parts of what will be a future Palestinian state.