No one expects dramatic results from a meeting at the White House on Wednesday between President Trump and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. But the fact that the meeting is taking place at all reflects a recognition by the Trump administration, which took office with a lopsidedly pro-Israel orientation, that it needs to reach out to Palestinians if it is to make any progress toward what Trump has called the “ultimate deal” of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Abbas’ visit comes at a moment when he is being challenged not only by Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip, and which issued a new and more moderate manifesto this week, but also by members of Abbas’ own Fatah movement who have become disenchanted with his leadership. He is — as he has been for some years — unpopular among his own people, with little political room to maneuver.
Still, the Trump administration’s outreach to Abbas is the latest sign of a small recalibration in its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump ran for the presidency promising unequivocally to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but, like previous presidents, he now seems more likely to postpone such a provocative move. That would be a wise decision.
The Trump administration’s outreach to Abbas is the latest sign of a small recalibration in its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump also floated the notion several months ago that the U.S. might soften its support for the so-called two-state solution in favor of some undefined alternative. More recently, however, the administration seems to have recognized why the two-state solution makes sense: If successful, it would allow a sovereign and independent Palestinian homeland to be established alongside a safe, secure and democratic Israel.
Finally, Trump has publicly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements” in the territory Israel acquired in the 1967 Middle East War. Previous U.S. administrations have criticized settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem because it undermines trust between the parties, provokes unnecessary anger and would make it harder to establish a Palestinian state.
Even if Trump is warming to a two-state solution, serious obstacles remain. One is the Netanyahu government, which has paid lip service to the peace process, but has acted in ways that undermined it. But the Palestinians also share blame. Although Hamas now says that it would be open to a Palestinian state along the borders that existed before the 1967 war, its new statement also refuses to recognize “the legitimacy of the Zionist entity.”
Abbas’ Palestinian Authority has also failed to take advantage of opportunities for agreement and continues to send mixed messages about whether it is willing to coexist with Israel. Some members of Congress want Trump to demand that the authority stop paying salaries and financial benefits to Palestinians convicted of violence against Israelis. Agreeing to end such payments would be politically difficult for Abbas, especially during the current hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israel. But it would be a sign of seriousness about renewing negotiations. Abbas needs to be clear with the Palestinian people — and to Israel, the United States and the world community — that he is serious about reaching a peaceful settlement of the century-old conflict.
Trump was widely mocked for saying recently that “there is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” Obviously there are huge political obstacles to a settlement. But Trump was right in the sense that “reason” dictates a settlement. The invitation to Abbas is a small but welcome sign that the Trump administration is willing to pursue one.
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