Trump’s Attempt to Strike “Ultimate” Middle East Deal Faces New Setback

Mahmoud Abbas challenges American leadership of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at the United Nations.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the U.N. Security Council in New York on Feb. 20.
 (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas speaks at the U.N. Security Council in New York on Feb. 20. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump once described the prospect of a peace pact between Israelis and Palestinians as the “ultimate deal,” a foundational diplomatic breakthrough that could burnish his presidency and help restore America’s standing in the world.

But the United States struggled at the United Nations on Tuesday to persuade the world that it was in the best position to maintain its exclusive leadership role in mediating an end to the decades-long conflict. Indeed, the United States has grown increasingly isolated at the United Nations since Trump announced his controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a step that most of the world, including all previous U.S. administrations, contended would have to await a final peace deal.

In a speech Tuesday before the U.N. Security Council, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made it clear that he was rejecting America’s long-standing role in leading Middle East mediation efforts. Instead, he proposed convening an international peace conference, including Israeli and Palestinian representatives, by mid-2018 that would recognize Palestine as a full-fledged U.N. member state, guarantee the protection of Palestinians, and recognize the international borders of Israel and Palestine on the basis of 1967 borders.

“We come here before your august council in the midst of the deadlock of the peace process due to the U.S. decision regarding Jerusalem,” he told the 15-nation council. “In the coming period, we will intensify our efforts to achieve admission to full membership in the United Nations and to guarantee international protection for our people.”

Abbas left the chamber before Israel and the United States had an opportunity to deliver their formal response.

It remained unlikely that Abbas will be able to set the terms for international peace talks. But the proposal for an international conference was warmly received by other council members, including Russia and France, who have long sought to play a larger role in the Middle East peace process. In a sign of the shifting mood at the United Nations, Abbas’s speech received rousing applause from the packed Security Council chamber. The U.S. delegation — led by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is leading U.S. Middle East peace efforts; and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s Middle East peace envoy — sat quietly without clapping.

In some sense, the response to Abbas’s remarks reflects the degree to which U.S. relations with the Palestinians have deteriorated since Trump announced his decision to recognize Jerusalem. During a visit to the White House last May, Abbas had praised Trump’s “great negotiating ability” and said he looked forward to working closely with him to strike a “historic peace treaty.”

In his statement Tuesday, Abbas asserted that the White House has contradicted “its own commitments and has violated international law and the relevant [U.N.] resolutions with its decision regarding Jerusalem. So, it has become impossible today for one country or state alone to solve a regional or international conflict without the participation of other international partners.”

Abbas’s defiant tone also raised questions about the viability of the U.S. role as the undisputed, and evenhanded, leader in Middle East mediation efforts in the wake of Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, urged the Arab League and the Middle East Quartet — which includes representatives from the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations — to step in to revive stalled political talks. He also pledged Moscow’s support in organizing an international peace conference.

France, which organized its own international Middle East peace conference with some 70 states in attendance in Paris in January 2017, also responded warmly to Abbas’s proposal. France’s U.N. ambassador, François Delattre, cited Abbas’s “courageous commitment, which he renewed today in this chamber, for peace and negotiations.”

At the same time, Delattre urged the United States to reconsider its recent decision to cut more than $100 million in funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, which provides schooling, food, health care, and other essential services to more than 5 million Palestinian refugees.

“The situation in Palestinian refugee camps — this is a time bomb,” Delattre told the council. “The weaker UNRWA becomes, the more terrorist groups can use the Palestinian refugee camps as grounds for recruitment.”

Haley said she was “sorry” that Abbas had neglected to remain behind after delivering his speech to listen to Security Council members. But she made it clear that Washington would not go along with his plan.

Washington, she said, realizes that the Palestinian leadership was “very unhappy” with Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. “You don’t have to like that decision,” she noted. “You don’t have to praise it. You don’t even have to accept it. But know this: That decision will not change.”

Haley said the Palestinians are now confronted with a choice. “You can choose to denounce the United States, reject the U.S. role in peace talks, and pursue punitive measures against Israel in international forums like the U.N. I assure you that path will get the Palestinian people exactly nowhere toward the achievement of their aspirations.”

Otherwise, she said, “you can choose to put aside your anger” and move forward with political talks that offers the best chance of improving the lives of Palestinians.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, chided Abbas for running from the chamber after his speech to avoid a debate, setting out a list of unacceptable demands, and fomenting a “culture of hate” among Palestinians. “You have made it clear, with your words and with your actions, that you are no longer part of the solution,” Danon said. “You are the problem.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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