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PLO Ambassador Talks Trump at MEI

By Austin Mistretta 

On Jan. 25, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to cut aid to the Palestinians. Two hours later in Washington, D.C., Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot took the stage at the Middle East Institute (MEI) to talk about the fraying relations between the White House and his government.

While the day’s news certainly infused the MEI forum with an element of urgency, Zomlot kept his cool. In his opening statement, he made it clear that he still intended to discuss other exigent topics like the Trump administration’s landmark decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he was originally slated to talk about.

“Let me really focus in the introduction not on positions or feelings,” he said. “Because there is a lot of nonsense going around, and it is crucial from time to time that we revert back to sanity and to policy and to objectives.”

He began that reversion by summarizing the past few decades of Palestinian history, starting on Nov. 15, 1988, on which date the Palestinian National Council (PNC) voted to declare Palestine an independent state operating within the borders prescribed by the United Nations in 1947. The PNC functions as the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which has represented the Palestinian people in the international arena since 1974, and for which Zomlot serves as its chief envoy in the United States. 

The PLO itself formed as a militant faction in the 1960s, as Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews clashed violently over disputed land claims in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Due to the organization’s early history of attacks on Israeli civilians, the United States designated it a terrorist group until 1991. Since then, the PLO has gained legitimacy abroad as the primary representative of the Palestinians, even receiving official recognition from Israel in 1993. 

The Israeli-Palestinian feud, however, still rages on today. 

At the epicenter of the conflict sits the holy city of Jerusalem, which both nations claim as their eternal capital. On Dec. 6 last year, President Trump announced that the U.S. would unequivocally accept Israel’s bid for Jerusalem as its capital and move the U.S. delegation there. The unprecedented move drew widespread criticism that it would derail any hopes for a two-state solution and infuriated the Palestinians, who called it a deal-breaker and urged other parties to replace the U.S. as a mediator in the conflict.


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their joint press conference on Feb. 15, 2017, in the East Room of the White House. By siding with the Israelis that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish state, Trump has thrown peace talks with the Palestinians into disarray. (Official White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum)

“Why did we commit and continue engaging [in negotiations with America and Israel] if there was no commitment to the two-state solution of 1967?” Zomlot asked the crowd, referencing the vision of coexistence between Palestine and Israel that has shaped U.S. diplomacy in the region for decades, and which the Jerusalem decision threatens to undermine — before answering: “Because every time we asked the administration this question, they would tell us, ‘We do not want to impose on any side.’”

The doctrine of a two-state solution was largely structured around perceived American neutrality as a third-party arbiter. 

“That was the goodbye kiss for the long-held U.S. policy,” Zomlot said of Trump’s move.


President Barack Obama meets with Presidential Innovation Fellows in the Roosevelt Room

Jerusalem, which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, has long been at the epicenter of the dispute between Palestinians and Israelis, who both claim it as their capital. (Photo: Pixabay / Walkerssk)

Throughout his first year as president, Trump has lived up to his brand as a disruptor. The flouting of long-standing norms of both policy and behavior has been a consistent theme of Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office; his aggressive approach to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is no exception. 

Trump, for his part, maintains that he wants peace “more than anybody.” He says the problem is that Palestinians refuse to come to reasonable terms in any negotiations, a charge that Palestinians deny. In Davos, the American president doubled down, publicly excoriating the Palestinians and suggesting that the United States would withhold critical financial aid to force them to the negotiating table.

“That money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump said to reporters. “Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace, and they’re going to have to want to make peace too, or we’re going to have nothing to do with it any longer.”

Meanwhile, at MEI, an incredulous Zomlot countered Trump’s narrative of Palestinian intransigence.

“When I hear that Palestinians walked away from negotiations, I just pause. I just pause. It was us, for all these months, in every meeting, every encounter [with Trump], saying, ‘We’re ready! We’re ready!’” he said. “In fact, the ones who blocked any talks with the American side were the Americans themselves.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, the situation looks grim. In response to Trump’s statements, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that no peace talks will occur until East Jerusalem is back in Palestinian hands.

Last month, an angry Abbas declared that Trump had killed the Oslo peace accords and personally slammed the president, saying, “Damn your money” and “The deal of the century is the slap of the century.”

For now, observers can only hope that this war of words does not erupt into something larger.

Austin Mistretta is an editorial intern at The Washington Diplomat



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