The head of the Palestinian Mission to the United States accused President Donald Trump of “backstabbing” President Mahmoud Abbas in a talk yesterday, deepening a dispute over who is to blame for failure of a peace deal with Israel. That morning Trump said Palestinian leaders had abandoned pre-talk discussions, making the claim while seated next to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu in Davos at the World Economic Forum. Trump called Netanyahu a “close personal friend,” which served as a reminder to the Palestinians which side the administration has been on.
Hours later Palestinian Ambassador Husam Zomlot took the stage in Washington DC at the Middle East Institute, presenting an altogether different narrative: the Palestinians were bystanders to internal divisions within the Trump administration that prevented peace talks from starting months ago.
It was “the Americans who blocked the Americans” from kick-starting negotiations with Israel, not the Palestinians, Zomlot said, revealing confidential discussions between the Trump and Abbas that took place last year. From the first sit-down between the two presidents in May 2017 until December, the Palestinian leadership had been “nagging” Trump to begin direct talks with Israel, he said.
The rupture in relations between the Trump administration and the Palestinian leadership started on December 6, 2017 when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, “unilaterally,” Zomlot pointed.
Yet prior to the fallout, Zomlot described many months of warm relations and flattery from Trump to Abbas. Zomlot was present for three meeting with Trump, and even stood next to Abbas while he was on the phone with him in the capacity of being Abbas’ then senior advisor.
Recounting a March 2017 phone call between Trump and Abbas, Zomlot said Trump told Abbas that he “has been hearing great things about President Abbas from everybody. That he now believes that President Abbas is the man, is the statesman is the one who actually has been committed and will be committed to a vision of peace.”
“The second message that [Trump] delivered on the phone is that he also wants to make peace. That he has been watching this conflict since he was a child and that he thinks it’s senseless and must end. To our absolute happy surprise we were hearing the conversation,” Zomlot said.
It was in this first call where Trump proposed his signature approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “I am going to intervene. I am want to be a fair arbitrator. I want to bring an end to this. I want to present you and the region and the world with what I call the ultimate deal,” Zomlot continued.
“Are you in?” Trump asked Abbas, to which the Palestinian leader “did not blink,” Zomlot said. Abbas responded, “yes this has been what I have been looking for for many, many years,” Zomlot relayed.
At the end of this call Trump invited Abbas to visit the White House in May. “It was absolutely a success in every sense. Put aside all other issues, but as far as that engagement, as far as the discussion, the commitments, the chemistry, things were actually not bad,” Zomlot said.
Over the course of the next few months Trump met Abbas two more times, once in Bethlehem and once in New York. Zomlot was present for both encounters.
“I tell you it was going from strength to strength, from good to better,” Zomlot said.
Moreover, communication between Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and envoy on Middle East peace Jason Greenblatt shuttled between Washington and the Ramallah, which seemingly gave the Palestinian leadership a signal of progress.
“We met his team tens of times, we lost count,” Zomlot said. In those sit downs, Zomlot relayed that the Palestinian leadership insisted on a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as its capital. This was not challenged by Trump’s envoys.
Then communication abruptly came to a halt after Trump’s Jerusalem-is-Israel’s-capital speech. Since that time, the senior Trump officials working on brokering Middle East peace, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, stopped reaching out to their Palestinian partners. Zomlot, as well, has not talked to either. “My phone is open,” he said.
The sudden rupture left the Palestinian leadership aghast. Not only had Trump seemingly reversed a personal commitment to the Palestinians, but Trump accused Abbas of refusing to negotiate with Israel and has implemented punitive financial cuts on services for Palestinian refugees totaling over $100 million.
Indeed, after the Jerusalem announcement Abbas emphatically said he would not continue peace discussion with the U.S. as a mediator unless it reversed the Jerusalem statement. Abbas’s top council also voted to temporarily suspend recognition of Israel. Yet Zomlot said that prior to the breakdown in relations, the Palestinian leadership had actually begged Trump to start direct peace talks with Israel.
“From the very first meeting” between Presidents Trump and Abbas, the Palestinians told the U.S. they were ready for direct negotiations, Zomlot said, “We, since May, have been literally nagging for this to happen, to no success.”
“So when I hear that the Palestinians have walked away from negotiations, I just pause, I just pause,” Zomlot said. He dismissed the notion that the Palestinian leadership had formally thrown in the towel on U.S. back talks. Zomlot said he will “double down” on efforts to strengthen the bi-lateral relationship.
Given in scant detail, Zomlot said the focus of Palestinian leaders now is to bypass the Trump administration and appeal directly to Congress and the American public to back a multilateral framework for peace talks. The Palestinians have, for years, asked the international community for a P5+1 framework—with the U.S. as one of the mediators along with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany —to demand the establishment of a Palestinian state. When asked if the Palestinians would seek another resolution at the United Nations Security Council, he confirmed his government would.
Israel has rejected Palestinian moves at the United Nations and only endorses reaching a peace deal with the U.S. as the sole mediator. In the past, Israel has said Palestinian activities in the international community have constituted an abandoning of a course for peace they both agreed to over two decades ago. “America was Israel’s lawyers for all of these years,” but the Palestinians continued to work with the U.S. peace process because of an explicit acknowledgement that East Jerusalem would become the capital of a future Palestinian state, Zomlot said. Now with Trump, all of that has gone out the window.
“There has been a lot of defamation of the Palestinians people, their story and their rights and it’s about time we tell our story in the most dignified manner possible,” Zomlot later told Mondoweiss, “our orientation is to find an agreement, we are not motivated by blame or shame.”