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May 1, 2017 4:43 pm

Veteran US Diplomat: At White House Meeting, Trump Must Push Abbas to End Financial Support of Palestinian Terrorists and Their Families

avatar by Ben Cohen

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Photo: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons.

President Donald Trump boosted the “relevancy” of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas by inviting him to Washington for a White House meeting this week and now needs to lean on the Palestinian leader to take “hard steps” —  including an end of payments to terrorists and their families, a veteran US diplomat said on Monday.

In a conference call organized by The Israel Project, Ambassador Dennis Ross — who has worked on Middle East issues for numerous administrations since the Carter era and is now the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — said Abbas had been in the doldrums before being summoned by Trump.

Arab leaders, including King Abdullah of Jordan, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt and the heads of the Gulf states had all been marginalizing Abbas, Ross pointed out.

“But Trump has made him more relevant again, which is important at a time when he doesn’t have much popularity within the PA,” Ross noted.

Ross argued that the conditions for a revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process could hardly be less opportune. “I don’t think we’ve ever been at a lower point, not because of violence,  but because the level of disbelief between two sides has never been greater,” he said. “More than 60 percent of Israelis want a two-state outcome, but over 90 percent don’t believe it will happen.”

Ross explained that if Trump was serious about pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, he should avoid a “big initiative” that could end in failure and mutual recriminations.

Trump would also, Ross said, have to “make difficult asks of both sides.”

For Abbas, that would mean a pledge to end financial backing of two PA foundations that give money to Palestinian terrorists jailed in Israeli prisons, as well as their families. The foundations receive an annual sum of $300 million — nearly 8 percent of the PA’s total budget.

Ross did not make light of the political difficulties that would face Abbas if he was to make such a decision, not least regarding the present hunger strike involving two-thirds of Palestinian prisoners from the Fatah faction — led by Abbas rival Marwan Barghouti, the head of Fatah’s Tanzim armed wing and co-founder of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades who is jailed for life in Israel after being convicted on five murder counts in 2004.

Such a request by Trump would leave Abbas feeling “defensive,” Ross said. “But Trump needs to be able to say to him, you don’t have to produce something by tomorrow, but you have to produce it at some point, if I am going to invest in doing something on this issue,” Ross continued.

Ross also discussed another concession which he said Trump should obtain from Abbas. The Palestinian leader, according to Ross, “has to recognize the historic Jewish connection to the land and to Jerusalem, that there are two national movements, and two national identities,” in keeping with the declared goal of “two states for two peoples.”

Ross disputed the notion that there were alternatives to the two-state formula. “I’m not sure the administration’s real position is to move away from a ‘two state’ outcome,” he said. The Trump White House’s contacts with Arab leaders have been a key factor here, Ross observed.

“Trump wants a bigger deal involving the Arab states, which can provide a kind of cover for Abu Mazen (Abbas) as well as for the Israelis, who are convinced that any concessions they make to the Palestinians won’t be reciprocated, so they need to get something from the Arabs,” Ross said. “The Arab states won’t play a role in a process that leads to a Palestinian entity wrapped in an Israeli state — they just won’t.”

Ross repeatedly emphasized the high stakes that Abbas faces. He said the Palestinian leader is seen by the vast majority of Palestinians as ineffective in securing concessions from Israel, and at the same time the PA has lost legitimacy because of the corruption that prevails among its top figures. “He frequently seems to stand aloof from the Palestinian people,” Ross said. “Two-thirds of them would like him to leave.”

The Trump-Abbas White House sit-down on Wednesday comes amid heightened tensions between the Fatah-controlled PA in the West Bank and the Islamist terror group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

The refusal of Hamas to give in to Abbas’ effort to regain control of the coastal enclave — which Hamas violently took over in 2007 — led the PA to inform Israel last week that it would no longer pay for Gaza’s electricity supply.

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