In six weeks, President Donald Trump will make history when he inaugurates the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, cementing Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital. But the planned May 14 ribbon-cutting — which coincides with the Jewish state’s 70th anniversary of independence — won’t spark any celebrations among Palestinians.
On the contrary, it’ll be nothing less than “catastrophic,” warns Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot.
“This is a bullet fired at the heart of the two-state solution. We see Netanyahu’s fingers all over this,” charged Zomlot, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on March 31 completes nine years in office (not counting a previous three-year term in the late 1990s). “If you look at the way President Trump announced the embassy move to Jerusalem, it was the total negation of a nation.”
Like Israelis, Palestinians see Jerusalem as their eternal capital. The final status of the holy city is considered a core issue in any two-state solution, among other contentious disputes such as the right of return for Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements in occupied territory and security guarantees for Israelis. While Trump campaigned on a pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, largely to appease his evangelical base, many longtime foreign policy watchers were baffled by his announcement. For someone who has prided himself as a master negotiator, Trump appeared to be giving away one of America’s biggest bargaining chips for seemingly nothing in return.
Nine of 11 former U.S. ambassadors to Israel contacted by The New York Times in the wake of the announcement disagreed with Trump’s decision, describing it as “wrongheaded, dangerous or deeply flawed.” They argued that the U.S. should have at least demanded concessions from Israel, such as recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state or slowing settlement construction.
Trump countered that the move was simply a “recognition of reality.” In a Dec. 6 statement, he pointed out that for two decades, U.S. presidents have avoided calling Jerusalem the capital of Israel, yet “we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result.”
While Trump added that the U.S. is not taking a position on any final-status issues, including how Jerusalem is divided, many analysts say the president missed a key opportunity to couple his decision with the release of a comprehensive Mideast peace plan.
“One of the things that is most confounding to me is how easy it would have been for [President Trump] to translate this into a creative push in the peace process,” said Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, during a Dec. 11 program on the Jerusalem decision held at the Wilson Center.
But Trump has yet to lay out his much-vaunted “ultimate deal” to end the conflict, a plan that is now essentially considered dead on arrival. The Palestinians, predictably, saw Trump’s Jerusalem declaration as a betrayal and have since refused to come back to the negotiating table.
Kurtzer is not surprised, arguing that Trump has thrown his lot in with Netanyahu. “The reality is that the United States has been trying to ride two different horses for much of the last 50 years, if not for the entire 70 years. One of those is to act as a third-party mediator and honest broker to the peace process,” he said at the Wilson Center event. “The second horse we’ve been trying to ride is to expand the relationship with Israel…. What President Trump has effectively done here is that he is going to ride only one horse … and that is Bibi-sitting, rather than babysitting. He’s decided that it’s more important for the United States to expand, enhance, deepen and strengthen its relationship with Israel than it is to enhance the very peace process that he has raised expectations about with regards to the United States’s role.”
Zomlot, speaking at the same conference, said he was initially optimistic that Trump would tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a fresh mindset. “I was on record to be one of the first to say that President Trump does present a historical opportunity, and with me are many people in Palestine [who] thought that he had respect on this issue very early on — and that was a very good sign. That he dedicated a special team for it — another good sign,” he said. But then the announcement dropped, “and I don’t need to prove the point that he has injected anxiety, anger and resentment.”
It’s easy to understand Zomlot’s anger.
Born in the Gaza Strip, the diplomat’s family was originally from Simsim, a village 19 kilometers from Gaza. But in May 1948, at the height of Israel’s War of Independence, he said Israeli soldiers forced out all the villagers at gunpoint, destroying it and warning Simsim’s inhabitants not to return. Several kibbutzim later sprang up in the area.
“They have never built anything there until this day,” he said. “My father used to take me to Simsim every other week. The irony was that we could drive; there were no checkpoints. It was only 40 minutes by car.”
Zomlot grew up in a refugee camp on the southern edge of Gaza, eventually pursuing his graduate and doctorate studies in London before moving up the ranks of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Today, Zomlot, who is formally head of the PLO General Delegation’s mission to the United States, is the closest thing the Palestinian people have to an ambassador here. A key advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he spoke to The Washington Diplomat in early March, as 18,000 of Israel’s most ardent supporters were meeting across town at the 2018 AIPAC Policy Conference.
Despite the age-old hatreds, Zomlot insists he wasn’t raised in an atmosphere of anger and resentment. “Instead, [my family] invested every single penny they had left to educate me,” he said. “My grandfather taught me to look up to Jews. This is not a religious conflict.”
Speaking to us under an enormous framed panorama of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque — the world’s third-holiest site to Muslims — Zomlot called his PLO office “the most schizophrenic mission you can ever have.”
Zomlot arrived here in April 2017, just four months after Trump’s inauguration. But his tenure in Washington has been rough.
“This is a foreign government mission that does the normal range of diplomatic activities. We do what all other embassies do, and we’re treated as such by the U.S. and by other embassies,” he said.
Yet since 1987, the office has been operating under a cloud. The PLO is still legally designated as a terrorist organization, “despite the signing of Oslo in 1993 and numerous bilateral agreements and very generous U.S. aid,” Zomlot said. “Despite that and the fact that Israel itself recognized the PLO in 1993, in America this law was never reversed.
“What changed is that in 2015, U.S. legislators introduced a new provision to the already existing PLO Terrorism Act, that if the Palestinians take steps against Israel at the ICC [International Criminal Court], their office in Washington would be closed and could only reopen after 90 days,” said Zomlot. The administration invoked this rule late last year when it threatened to shut down Zomlot’s mission in D.C. in a bid to force Palestinians back to the negotiating table, although it later backed off the threat.
Zomlot complained about the U.S. government’s heavy-handed tactics, not only by Trump but also by previous administrations. “For the last 26 years, we have been on the negotiation table led by the U.S. It was very clear: two states along the 1967 borders, U.N. Security Resolutions 242 and 338, and resolving all outstanding issues, including East Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine. The two-state solution is misunderstood as a Palestinian demand, but it was a concession that President Reagan demanded from us in 1987.”
He added: “In 1991, [then-Secretary of State] James Baker promised in a letter inviting us to the Madrid peace conference that the U.S. would not recognize Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and would only consider Jerusalem to be a final-status issue.”
In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, requiring the U.S. government to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by a set deadline. But the move could be delayed for six months at a time by the president “to protect the national security interests of the United States.”
Indeed, every president since Bill Clinton has signed such waivers.
‘Sky Did Fall’
The Palestinians accepted these “painful but significant concessions,” said Zomlot, but on Dec. 6, 2017, Trump “simply demolished that policy” by announcing he’d move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv — Israel’s largest city and financial hub — to the western part of Jerusalem, its legal capital. Guatemala quickly followed suit, and since then, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Paraguay have hinted they’ll do likewise in the near future.
Later that month, 128 countries voted in the United Nations General Assembly to support a resolution condemning Trump’s announcement. Another 35 nations abstained, and 21 didn’t participate at all. Only seven countries besides the U.S. and Israel opposed the resolution: Guatemala, Honduras, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo.
Two days after that vote, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the world: “The sky’s still up there. It hasn’t fallen.”
She’s wrong, according to Zomlot.
“The sky did fall, but Nikki didn’t see it — and she doesn’t want to see it,” he said. “In effect, the sky has fallen on the U.S. role as mediator, and on the two-state solution.”
Abbas promptly appealed to the U.N. and other nations to replace the U.S. as the main interlocutor in peace talks, although no one has stepped up to the plate so far. He also threatened to cut off all contact with U.S. officials and refused to meet with Vice President Mike Pence during the latter’s January 2018 visit to the Middle East. And on March 20, Abbas called David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, a “son of a dog” and a “settler” for saying that Israelis have a right to establish settlements in the West Bank.
The White House retaliated. In January, it announced that it would withhold about half the aid it had planned on giving the U.N. agency that helps more than 5 million Palestinian refugees. The administration argued that the cuts to UNRWA, which total about $65 million, would force other nations to shoulder more of the financial burden, although so far none have picked up the slack.
Critics of UNRWA also say the agency has long misused the funds to foment anti-Israel propaganda and perpetuate the refugee crisis. Supporters say U.S. contributions to the group provide much-needed food, health care, schooling and other vital services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank and throughout the region. Cutting those funds could inadvertently threaten Israel’s security if there is a mass revolt among desperate refugees, particularly those in Gaza, or if militant groups like Hamas use the cuts to attract new recruits.
Yet despite the deteriorating situation, “no one has an interest in cutting the only lifeline of communications and disassemble the bilateral relationship between America and Palestine,” according to Zomlot. That, he said, is why threats to close down his mission are dangerous.
“This office is the address to advance our bilateral relationship with America. It must remain unconditionally. The presence of diplomatic missions has never and should never be at the mercy of political change. Otherwise you would find no embassies here,” he said. “The whole logic that a foreign government mission is conditioned upon the political process that involves a third party is absolutely ridiculous.” Zomlot scoffed at the notion of a tradeoff, insisting that “this office should be here, regardless of whether we talk or not.”
About 30 people work at the red-bricked mission fronting Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, which is decorated with photos of Abbas, Yasser Arafat and other heroes of the Palestinian revolution.
“My day is the day of any normal ambassador here. I do not just represent a state. I represent a cause,” said the Ph.D. economist, adding that despite his official lack of status as an ambassador, “I am officially received at the airport at the gate of the plane, out of respect.”
The Palestinian diaspora numbers roughly 13 million; this includes about 2.5 million in the West Bank, 380,000 in Jerusalem, 1.7 million in Gaza and another 1.5 million within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Another 7 million live in surrounding Arab countries, the Gulf states, Europe and the Americas.
Zomlot’s native Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories on Earth, with more than 5,000 inhabitants packed into every square kilometer of the Detroit-size strip. Ruled by Hamas, the territory is frequently used as a launching pad for missile attacks against Israeli civilians (Hamas and Israel have engaged in three bloody conflicts since 2007). Even so, Zomlot insists that Fatah, the secular party based in the West Bank, has more influence than the Islamist militant organization in Gaza, and that “influence is not how many guns you have on the ground. Control is about popularity.”
Yet neither side seems to be in control amid a protracted political stalemate. Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip with an iron fist since 2007, when the group seized it following an election dispute with the Palestinian Authority. But Hamas is hemmed in by Israel and Egypt, creating miserable conditions for the strip’s 2 million people. Unemployment exceeds 60 percent, hospitals are shutting down for lack of electricity, beaches are contaminated with raw sewage and food is scarce.
Meanwhile, there’s not much love lost for the aging Fatah party that rules the West Bank, where Palestinians are increasingly fed up with Fatah’s grip on power and its inability to deliver progress despite cooperating with Israel on security matters. A December 2017 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed that 70 percent of Palestinians want 82-year-old Abbas to resign, although Fatah has refused to call elections in over a decade.
Past attempts at reconciliation between the two warring Palestinian factions quickly fizzled out, including the most recent one that was announced with great fanfare last October. Squeezed by Abbas, who slashed the salaries of government workers and payments for fuel in Gaza, Hamas had agreed to cede control over border crossings. But it refused to disarm and missed a series of deadlines for handing governance over to the Palestinian Authority.
The bitterness between Fatah and Hamas boiled over following the attempted assassination of Rami Hamdallah, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, during Hamdallah’s early March visit to Gaza. Abbas has publicly accused Hamas of planting the “despicable” roadside bomb that destroyed the prime minister’s convoy but did not injure him.
While Zomlot does not condone acts of violence, he said he does sympathize with the underlying grievances that propel Palestinians, including those languishing in the Gaza Strip, toward desperate measures.
“[Israelis] don’t see you as a national movement. They look at the symptom, not at the root,” he said. “There’s a denial of what Israel has done throughout the years. The collective Israeli psyche is to bury their heads in the sand. Are tunnels acceptable? No, because they bring mayhem, drugs and weapons, and are bad for society. But tunnels become the issue — not the siege itself, which pushes people to create illegal alternatives.”
Meanwhile, as Hamas and Fatah dig into their positions, further eroding the Palestinians’ negotiating power, Abbas’s allies haven’t been much help. Other than issuing a few critical statements, Arab states have been largely quiet over the Jerusalem controversy, perhaps because they are more preoccupied with the Islamic State, Syria’s civil war and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that is playing out in Yemen and elsewhere.
And with Netanyahu riding a wave of unconditional support from the White House — in stark contrast to the tense relationship he had with President Obama — he has little incentive to offer concessions to the Palestinians. Further complicating the situation are Netanyahu’s own legal troubles. The prime minister is mired in multiple cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that could land him behind bars. The investigations, which have gained steam, could prompt him to call early elections. In that case, analysts say Netanyahu will crack down even harder on Palestinians to shore up his right-wing base.
Zomlot spent much of our interview analyzing internal Israeli politics. Calling the PLO “the last remaining secular movement in the region,” he warned that the Jewish state right now needs a leader and a statesman, rather than a politician.
“There is a huge difference. A politician is consumed with and obsessed with power and maneuvering. Netanyahu scores very high there, convincing his people that he’s the only one who can defend them. He inflates and exaggerates threats. We see this in other countries, where they hit on Muslim communities. That’s their ticket to popularity.”
On the other hand, he says, “A statesman is a person who says what the people must hear. [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin tried and paid his life for it. I believe President Yasser Arafat was able to bring his people to make historic concessions for the sake of peace. That was not easy for any leader to do. And President Abbas is famous for saying everything his people don’t want to hear, but need to hear.”
Constant Threat of Violence
While Abbas has sharply denounced the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he has refrained from urging Palestinians to take matters into their own hands. Despite some initial clashes following Trump’s declaration, fears of another intifada uprising have not materialized. But given the dire situation in Gaza and the frustrations in the West Bank, Israel and the U.S. are girding for fresh violence when Trump inaugurates the new U.S. Embassy in May, especially if security cooperation with Abbas’s government breaks down.
Already last month, a sit-in of tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza turned violent, with Israeli forces killing 15 protesters at the border fence.
Zomlot and Netanyahu do agree that the frequency of terrorist attacks inside Israel proper has dropped sharply since the mid-2000s, when suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities seemed like a daily occurrence. But the Palestinian envoy said that’s not because of the controversial protective separation wall Netanyahu built.
“Netanyahu takes credit for this, but the real reason is the commitment of the political leadership to promote a culture of peace in Palestine to make sure any acts of violence are contained,” he contends. “This is a Palestinian vision. It’s a policy, not just because we want to help Israelis. Violence doesn’t work. We are against violence. Individuals with guns are not just a threat to your enemy. They could be a threat to your society.”
He also argued that the stabbings of Jews that have taken place recently “have all happened in Israeli-controlled areas — none of them in our areas.”
Nevertheless, on March 16, two Israeli soldiers were killed and two others injured when a Palestinian rammed his car into them as they were standing along a highway near a Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank. Two days later, a 32-year-old Jewish father of four was stabbed to death in Jerusalem’s Old City by a 28-year-old Palestinian man from a village near Nablus. Israeli police shot the assailant to death, and at the victim’s funeral the following day, Israeli Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat vowed to step up the building of settlements in response to the man’s death.
Zomlot, denying that terrorist attacks only provoke more settlement-building, says the current violence lays squarely at the foot of Netanyahu, who depends on right-wing Jewish support to keep his ruling coalition together.
“Netanyahu argues it’s his wall, his relationship with President Trump, his relationship with the Arab world that has kept Israel safe. But when Netanyahu disappears, Israeli society will discover the hot air,” he claimed. “Netanyahu has created a mindset in Israel that the only way to live is by the sword. This is exactly what he said in the Knesset two years ago. This is the mentality he wants to create, because this is the only way he can survive.”
Death Knell for Two-State Solution?
Many experts agree that Netanyahu — and a growing number of Israelis — have little incentive to make the painful compromises needed to reach the ever-elusive two-state solution. Trump’s decision seems to have reinforced the status quo and led to a renewed debate over whether Israel is by default headed toward a one-state solution, whereby it either absorbs 3 million West Bank Palestinians and gives them equal rights or segregates them from society. The latter could lead to the creation of an undemocratic apartheid state, while the former could spell the demise of Israel’s Jewish character — neither of which is an appealing prospect for one of the world’s most economically innovative, militarily advanced nations.
Meanwhile, the Israeli far-right is pressing to annex land in occupied West Bank to create a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, relegating Palestinians to their current areas, which could eventually become a part of Jordan or Egypt.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) argues that such a scenario is already playing out, as Jewish-controlled areas expand to “the edge of the slopes down to the Jordan River Valley.” That’s why he doesn’t understand Trump’s Jerusalem decision, given that it needlessly alienated Arab allies and undermined America’s standing in the region.
“There was no earthly reason to provoke the Arab world. All President Trump had to do to help Israel was to ignore his campaign rhetoric and Israel’s political hardliners, and do nothing. Every year since 1967, Israel has slowly created new facts on the ground in Jerusalem and on the West Bank,” he wrote in a Dec. 7 CSIS brief. “At the same time, the deep divisions within the Arab world, the lack of any Palestinian unity and effective leadership, and the fears key states like Saudi Arabia have of Iran, have led Arab objections to become steadily quieter and ineffective, and they have made outside peace efforts largely moot in limiting the expansion of Israeli areas of control.”
Even Trump’s own Mideast peace plan, which has so far been kept tightly under wraps, reportedly does not explicitly endorse a two-state solution, although it suggests avenues for achieving that outcome.
Alon Ben-Meir, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, argues in a Feb. 7 op-ed that with his Jerusalem announcement, Trump has effectively ceded control of the conflict to Netanyahu.
“Even though Trump wants to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, he neither supports nor objects to a two-state solution and has left it up to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to decide which way to go. This sent a clear signal to the Netanyahu government that the U.S. is no longer committed to a two-state solution, leaving him to gradually undermine any prospect left to that end,” he wrote. “Three more years of misguided political backing by the Trump administration could inflict a fatal blow to Israel, rendering the country neither Jewish nor democratic.”
Palestinian officials have been making the same point.
“The two-state solution is over,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters after Trump’s declaration, arguing that Palestinians should pursue one nation with equal rights.
Zomlot is more reticent, although he argues that Israel wants to do just enough to keep the peace process alive, but not enough to make it thrive.
“The enemy of the Israeli government is the agency capable of moving in the direction of a two-state solution. That’s us,” he said. “The existing structure for peace has been the one thing that’s kept stability and security. But they don’t want to move in the direction of why we created it in the first place. So, they just keep it barely alive, barely functioning. We don’t want them strong, but we don’t want them dead either. We want them on life support.”
As for America’s role in the process, “we no longer have the standing U.S. policy of the two-state solution,” Zomlot said at the December Wilson Center event. “The most important alternative for us at this time is not to drop the two-state solution, but to look for more strategic ways to achieve it.”
Despite his gloomy outlook, Zomlot insists Arabs and Jews will some day find a way to coexist. “I’m definitely hopeful in the long term,” he told us. “I believe in the goodness of the human spirit, which always bends toward justice.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.