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Trump's pressure on Palestinians dampens hope of a peace deal

President Trump's decision to award Jerusalem to Israel has emboldened the country's right-wing government and driven Palestinians to publicly abandon cooperation with Washington, its erstwhile ally in past attempts to bring both sides to a settlement on long-standing grievances.

The president may be hoping his hardball tactics will force Palestinians back to the negotiating table, much as he has argued that making threats and talking tough helped bring him success in the business world.

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But as Trump approaches his first year in office, his ability to strike what he has called the "ultimate deal," a Mideast peace accord, now seems remote at best.

Trump's Dec. 6 announcement to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and ultimately to relocate the U.S. Embassy there, reversing decades of U.S. policy, could spell the death of the two-state solution, the long-held international consensus that any peace deal would include creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his governing partners have expanded control over lands also claimed by the Palestinians. The Israeli strategy has been bolstered by encouraging statements by the U.S. ambassador, David Friedman, Trump's former bankruptcy lawyer and a longtime supporter of right-wing Israeli causes.

Netanyahu's Likud Party and members of the ruling coalition also pushed through the Israeli parliament a measure that, on paper at least, would make it harder for future Israeli governments to cede any part of Jerusalem to the Palestinians, who also claim part of the city as their capital.

Most experts think the law contains enough loopholes to make it nearly impossible to implement, but the propaganda points were unmistakable.

"Netanyahu and his allies spent the end of the old year and the start of the new showing they feel liberated from the need even to pay lip service to peace with the Palestinians," Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg wrote Wednesday in the American Prospect, a liberal magazine.

"A series of Israeli declarations undermine chances for peace — and are a direct response to Trump's decision to end America's moderating role," he added.

Netanyahu is suffering domestic political troubles and attempting to weather a corruption scandal. So tailwinds from Washington, after years of clashes with President Obama, are especially welcome as he looks toward likely elections this year.

Netanyahu has a history of overreaching and then retreating, often in response to American pressure. In this case, Washington seemingly has given him a green light. And Trump, far from reversing the Jerusalem move after international condemnation, appears determined to punish the Palestinians further.

After Palestinian leaders said they would not meet Vice President Mike Pence, who again postponed a planned trip to the region this week, Trump threatened in a tweet Tuesday to cut hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. aid to the Palestinians because they failed to show "appreciation or respect" to Washington.

A congressional report in December 2016 said the United States has spent about $400 million a year to support the Palestinians since the Palestinian Authority was created in 1994.

Most of the money has gone to schools, hospitals and other projects in the West Bank and in Gaza supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, with only a small fraction going directly to the Palestinian Authority. Last year, Washington provided about $36 million to Palestinian security forces, which work with Israel to prevent terrorist attacks.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East under Republican and Democratic presidents, said Trump and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who also threatened to cut aid, were making good on threats to punish anyone who challenged Trump's decision on Jerusalem.

"It's easy to beat up on the U.N.," Miller said. "It's easy to beat up on the Palestinians."

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Trump has always had strong views on Israel, and once in office, he appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and two of his former lawyers as point men in the effort to forge a peace deal. All have supported the Israeli movement to erect Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, an issue that traditionally has been an obstacle to a negotiated settlement.

Friedman, the U.S. ambassador, has gone further since arriving in Israel, stirring widespread controversy with comments in the Israeli press.

The Israeli Broadcast Corp. quoted him urging the State Department to stop using the word "occupied" to describe the Israeli military presence in lands claimed by the Palestinians but controlled by Israel since the 1967 war. The State Department has ignored his request.

Speaking to Walla, a Hebrew language website, Friedman appeared to defend settlement expansion by Israeli Jews in the West Bank, a movement much of the world considers illegal. And in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, he called Palestinian objections to Trump's Jerusalem decision "anti-Semitic," a characterization no U.S. diplomat in the region previously would have used.

In Washington, Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, insisted U.S. policy had not changed on settlements and related issues but, when pressed, refused to state the Trump administration policy.

The administration says it will present a comprehensive peace plan this year, but officials won't say when or what it will include. Both Israeli and Palestinian officials ​say they have not seen a Trump plan.

A resumption of U.S.-brokered negotiations is difficult to envision any time soon since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded to the decision on Jerusalem by declaring he would not cooperate with the Trump administration. Palestinian leaders said they would be willing to negotiate, however, under the European Union or other possible mediators.

"One of the most important things for this administration is to have peace talks between the various sides to get them to a place of peace," Nauert said. "That position remains the same. And those conversations and those talks will continue."

Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Tarnopolsky from Jerusalem.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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