On May 23, standing beside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, U.S. President Donald Trump reiterated his interest in that most elusive of all diplomatic achievements—a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I am committed,” said Trump, “to trying to achieve a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians and I intend to do everything I can to help them achieve that goal.”
Until now no specifics about the Trump initiative have been given on how potential negotiations might be structured, on what role the United States or other third parties would play, or on whether the Trump administration would provide terms of reference. It seems likely that there are no specifics to give. Indeed, last February Trump stated during a Washington press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “I’m looking at a two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like... I could live with either one.”
The Trump administration does have a few things going for it. The extremely warm public reception the president received in Israel, in sharp contrast to the misgivings many Israelis had about Barack Obama, could conceivably make it harder for Netanyahu to resist pressure from Washington for concessions. The strategic convergence between Israel and Saudi Arabia, united in their opposition to Iran, could conceivably breathe new life into a regional approach that gives Arab states a stake in the process, through the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which was renewed by the Arab League in March. Jason Greenblatt, the American envoy for international negotiations, is a trusted Trump confidant who has generally won compliments for his preliminary consultations with both sides, although this has reportedly led to some anxieties in Israel’s hard right.
The Ramallah-based Palestinian establishment has its own reasons to be happy. Its worst fears—that the Trump administration would move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and provide overt or tacit support for Israeli settlement expansion—have proven unfounded. Palestinian leaders were thrilled with Abbas’ early invitation to Washington and with Trump’s reciprocal visit to Bethlehem last week during his first international trip. After early Palestinian post-election fears of being given a cold shoulder by Washington, Trump’s repeated talk of peace negotiations give Ramallah hope that Palestinians will be factored into the White House’s political calculations. Whatever Palestinians privately think of the possibility of the Trump initiative, it provides a much-needed boost to the beleaguered Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which have struggled to assert their relevance since the collapse of then-secretary of state John Kerry’s diplomatic initiative in April 2014.
Palestinian political advisers, like their Israeli and American counterparts, will find much to be pleased with in the images of Trump’s two-day visit to the Holy Land. However, there are reasons to be skeptical about the prospects for meaningful progress—from the track record of previous negotiations, to the composition of Netanyahu’s government, to the mounting political scandals that the White House is facing, to the comparative lack of interest among Arab states amid cascading regional crises.
Added to these are the profound challenges faced by the Palestinian national movement—the subject of an upcoming report by the Carnegie Endowment. Based on field research and a survey of 58 Palestinian leaders in various domains and featuring extended commentaries by Palestinian authors, the report concludes that fifty years after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war led to Israel’s takeover of the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian nationalism is at a dangerous crossroads.
With pathways to Palestinian statehood seen as increasingly less viable—three-fifths of survey respondents believe that a two-state solution is no longer feasible—the current trajectory in both the West Bank and Gaza seems likely to lead to continued occupation, settlement expansion, and internal division. But the strategic alternatives—ranging from popular (or even violent) resistance to embracing one-state outcomes—would require an escalation of the confrontation against Israel in ways that would increase the socio-economic stresses on the Palestinian population, with no certainty of success.
Palestinians, of course, overwhelmingly believe that Israeli settlement activity and the nature of the occupation itself are the greatest impediments to the two-state solution. As one Palestinian social scientist interviewed for the Carnegie report remarked, “Settlement expansion practically eliminates any future [prospects] for establishing a Palestinian state.”
However, our research suggests that Palestinians are nearly as dissatisfied with their own leadership. Roughly two in three of our survey respondents described addressing some variant of internal political or social divisions as among the most pressing challenges of Palestinian society. They were highly critical of the corruption and cronyism in the Palestinian leadership, especially in the West Bank, but also in Gaza, and the lack of representation and access to politics.
With presidential and legislative elections having been repeatedly cancelled since 2006, many respondents lamented that most Palestinian national institutions have become unrepresentative and stagnant—and at times absent. As an Amman-based Palestinian political analyst commented, “I do not think there presently exists a Palestinian movement which adequately represents the Palestinian people and is capable of conducting an effective struggle for self-determination.”
There are some signs of dynamism at the local level. Unions, student groups, and civil society representatives have helped to create linkages between leaders and constituencies and allowed some younger leaders, who have otherwise been boxed out of the PA, the PLO, and Fatah, to enter into the political system. Amid the considerable attention to Trump’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations in the weeks and months to come, it is worth pondering whether a new generation of Palestinian leaders preparing to take the reins of power can breathe new life into their national movement.