When Donald Trump’s advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt visited Jerusalem and Ramallah this week, they landed in the middle of a new convoluted, back-channel exercise run by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to slap the Palestinians into shape for a unified future and eventual peace with Israel.
Their visit did not signify progress towards setting Israel and the Palestinians on the track to peace – far from it. They were directed to observe developments, in keeping with the Trump Middle East doctrine for the US to distance itself from the political and military goings-on in the region, except for fighting the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
From time to time, US officials or military figures turn up, test a few pulses and return to Washington. The administration only goes into full diplomatic mode when inter-power ties are affected, such US-Russian interaction.
(A separate article analyses the price America is beginning to pay for its hands-off approach to the Syrian conflict.)
But this time, Kushner and Greenblatt didn’t waste time checking on progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track, because it is non-existent. Ever since the Temple Mount crisis in mid-July, this track has been frozen solid. The only movement now is the new initiative launched jointly by three Arab nations, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They are determined to create a fresh, unified Palestinian leadership capable of hauling their people out of its long crisis and eventually reaching an accommodation with Israel.
DEBKA Weekly outlines some of the early steps of a process, which promises to be slow and serpentine with no guarantee of success:
1. Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, will at some point face an ultimatum – either to step down or play ball with the trilateral initiative. He will be required to convene an early session of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), and bury the hatchet with the rival Hamas governing the Gaza Strip. He will need to swallow hard and negotiate a government-sharing deal between his Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and the rival Hamas rulers in Gaza, after a decade of being at daggers drawn.
After that, Palestinian elections would be held for a new parliament for the first time in 11 years.
Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi fear that, without their intervention, the Palestinian street, having lost faith in its governing institutions, will sink into violence and force Abbas to quit as head of the Palestinian Authority amid ensuing chaos.
However, Abu Mazen, even at 82, is a wily, battle-hardened political animal, who will be hard to manipulate. He is smart enough to see through the three Arab powers’ ultimate objective in promoting union between West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinian communities, which is to get rid of him, in favor of younger leaders trusted by all three.
Abu Mazen is therefore playing for time, seeming to go along with their plan for unifying Ramallah and Gaza by restoring the Palestinian Authority to its original role as ruler of both territories, and meanwhile working the odds.
That’s one level of the three Arab powers’ exercise.
On another, Egyptian, Saudi and UAE diplomats are applying a crafty mix of sticks and carrots to draw Hamas into reconciliation with its hated rival Fatah:
- For instance, variations on two options are floated: On the one hand, the PNC would finally admit Hamas as a member with its first seat on the council. On the other, Hamas would be ousted and government in Gaza passed to ministers appointed by Ramallah.
- Palestinian Authority security forces in some form or other would be brought over from Ramallah to the Gaza Strip to manage security in concert with the Hamas government.
These proposals have sparked fierce arguments in the Hamas’ political and military leadership. Some of them favor full or partial acceptance to alleviate the extreme economic crisis besetting the enclave.
But even the faction in favor can’t agree on which government powers are worth handing over to Ramallah and which to retain. Some of the commanders of the Hamas military wing, Ezz E-Din al-Qassem, are urging the politicos holding government portfolios and running public services to withdraw and abolish the Administrative Committee established in March, when Ismail Haniya stepped down as prime minister and disbanded his government. Police functions alone would be retained and passed to the Hamas internal security service.
This would leave Al-Qassam free to concentrate on building up the military and turning itself into a Palestinian version of the Lebanese Hizballah, in the sense of a major say on all issues, sans government responsibility.
- To push Hamas in the right direction, the UAE has opened its wallet and started remitting funds to the Gaza Strip, whose economy is on the verge of meltdown since Qatar cut back on funding.
- Egypt for its part, this week opened the Rafah border crossing from the Gaza Strip to Egyptian Sinai after a long closure.
The gist of the Egyptian-Saudi-UAE plan for the Palestinians, as summed up by DEBKA Weekly, is a thorough cleanout of Palestinian rule in both Ramallah and Gaza City. These veterans are seen as too hidebound to abandon their internal quarrels and their longstanding positions as refuseniks and militant extremists. The plan is to replace them with a younger and more pragmatic Palestinian leadership, before broaching peace talks with Israel. .
Trump’s three Middle East aides are there to act as observers, gauge how far the trilateral Arab initiative has progressed and evaluate its chances of maturing into a serious plan of action.