Report

Trump Pressures Palestinians and Allies Over Peace Plan

The White House blocks a U.N. resolution and threatens to withhold aid to the Palestinians.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a U.N. Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York on Feb. 11. Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

The White House thwarted a Palestinian drive for a U.N. Security Council resolution denouncing U.S. President Donald Trump’s much-criticized peace plan as illegal, and it appeared to threaten to withhold Palestinian aid as part of a diplomatic pressure campaign.

The collapse of the Palestinian diplomatic initiative at the U.N. came shortly before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared Tuesday before the Security Council to denounce the Trump plan, which he warned would undermine peace in the region and break up a future Palestinian state into a collection of enclaves that resemble of block of swiss cheese more than a viable new state. This account reveals behind-the-scenes diplomatic wrangling at the U.N. and in Washington and draws on interviews from a dozen diplomats and other officials familiar with the matter. 

The contentious debate at the U.N. comes a day after the Trump administration unveiled an annual budget proposal that would zero out U.S. aid for the West Bank and Gaza and withhold Palestinian security aid as leverage to garner support from Palestinians and opponents in Congress for the Middle East peace plan. The budget includes $200 million in a “Diplomatic Progress Fund” that could be used for Palestinian security aid—which a bipartisan group of lawmakers and Israel have supported for decades—but will likely mandate Palestinian acceptance of the peace plan first. 

The White House unveiled its peace plan, long delayed and nearly three years in the making, at politically precarious times for Trump and Israeli and Palestinian leaders. It came five weeks before key elections in Israel and on the same day that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was officially indicted on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. Trump, facing his own reelection challenge, emerged from a bruising impeachment battle intact but politically damaged alongside Netanyahu, who has endorsed the plan. Abbas has rallied Arab countries to denounce the plan, but the aging leader’s popularity both at home and abroad is waning, leaving open-ended questions about which of the political leaders, if any, could prevail in their vision to advance or block Middle East peace.

The Trump plan would leave a future Palestine “without any control on our land, air, and sea,” Abbas told the 15-nation council. “This plan will not bring peace or stability to the region, and therefore we will not accept this plan.” 

Abbas warned that frustration with the U.S. plan threatened to spark violence in the region, saying “the situation could implode at any moment”—though he insisted that the Palestinians would not resort to violence or terrorism.

Instead, Abbas called for an international peace conference to replace the United States as the chief guarantor of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, contending that the United States “cannot be the sole mediator.” France—which proposed such a conference years ago—signaled a willingness to begin discussions about such a meeting.

Abbas also suggested that the Trump plan reflected a repudiation of assurances he received back in 2017, when he discussed Palestinian aspirations directly with Trump. The exchange, he said, was followed by the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, the declaration of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and the cutting off of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Palestinians.

“I don’t know who gave him this unacceptable advice. I know that Mr. Trump is not like that. The President Trump that I have met is not like that. And this was very surprising,” Abbas said.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, dismissed the need for an international conference, insisting that the only route to peace was through direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The U.S. proposal, he insisted, provided a reasonable starting point for such talks. Danon accused Abbas of using the stage of the U.N. Security Council to avoid the hard decision to participate in direct talks with Israel. 

“President Abbas is not serious about negotiations,” he said. “Instead, he did as he always does. He came here to distract from his unwillingness to negotiate.”

“Let’s not beat around the bush,” he added. “Progress towards peace will not be made so long as President Abbas remains in his position. This is the reality.”

But Abbas received an unexpected vote of confidence from former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who held a joint press conference with the Palestinian leader outside of U.N. headquarters. Olmert has said he came close to clinching a peace deal with Abbas in 2008 that would cede nearly the entire West Bank to Abbas, among other land swap proposals. The plan never came to fruition.

“He is a man of peace, he is opposed to terror, and therefore he is the only partner we can deal with,” Olmert said.

At the same time, Olmert expressed hope that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders would start negotiations on the basis of the Trump plan. “I hope the Palestinian side … would not ignore that there is a commitment to a two-state solution in the plan of President Trump,” he said. 

But Olmert’s appearance with Abbas served to infuriate Israeli officials. “On the same day that Abu Mazen [Abbas] failed in his attempt to condemn the U.S. and Israel in the Security Council here at the U.N., Mr. Olmert is endorsing Abu Mazen,” Danon said in a statement released after the press conference. “He is endorsing diplomatic terrorism against Israel. It is shameful.”

The Palestinian decision to withdraw its resolution from consideration followed more than a week of diplomatic efforts by Palestinian, Tunisian, and Indonesian diplomats to secure support for a resolution declaring Trump’s Middle East initiative as illegal before Abbas’s arrival. 

The council’s lone Arab government, Tunisia, along with Indonesia, led the negotiations on the draft—dated Feb. 4 and described as a “non paper”—that “strongly regrets that the plan presented on 28 January 2020 by the United States and Israel breaches international law and internationally endorsed terms of reference for the achievement of a just, comprehensive, and lasting solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

But before the draft could be tabled, Tunisia’s new president, Kais Saied, abruptly recalled and fired his U.N. ambassador, Moncef Baati. The ambassador’s dismissal came after Trump’s Middle East advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, phoned the Tunisian government to protest the country’s role in the negotiations, warning it could harm Tunisia’s relations with the United States, according to three senior diplomatic sources. A fourth diplomatic source said Kushner had raised concerns directly to the president.

Over the weekend, Tunisia and Indonesia circulated a watered-down Feb. 8 Palestinian draft, which simply noted that the U.S. plan “departs from the internationally endorsed terms of reference and parameters for the achievement of a just, comprehensive, and lasting solution to this conflict.” But the United States maneuvered to have the resolution’s passage stopped on Monday morning, citing concerns that it was implicitly critical of Trump’s peace efforts. The news site Axios previously reported on the U.S. action.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, mounted a strenuous diplomatic effort over the weekend to dissuade council members from backing the Palestinian text. Some of the toughest pressure fell on small countries, such as Estonia, which was urged to break ranks with the council’s other European Union members—Belgium, France, and Germany—which were expected to vote in favor of the resolution, according to diplomatic sources. 

When asked for response, a State Department spokeswoman said “[w]e don’t discuss the details of diplomatic conversations.”

The Palestinians ultimately decided to withdraw the draft from consideration for the time being. Council diplomats said the Palestinian decision reflected the diminishing support for their initiative over the weekend and concern that a vote could expose supporters to political retaliation from the United States.

It remained unclear whether the Palestinians would resume their push for a Security Council resolution criticizing the White House plan, take its case before the U.N. General Assembly, or drop the matter altogether.

By not putting forward a polarizing resolution, the United Nations Security Council demonstrated yesterday that the old way of doing things is over,” the State Department spokeswoman said. For the first time on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the Council was willing to think outside the conventional box, and not reflexively fall back on the calcified Palestinian position, which has only allowed the failed status quo to continue.

The spokeswoman added that “[w]e are optimistic that countries are keeping an open mind with regard to” Trump’s peace plan.

During Tuesday’s Security Council meeting, Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, defended the United States from charges that it was seeking to foist its plan on the rest of the world. Trump’s initiative was not a “take it or leave it” plan but an “opening offer,” Craft said.

“President Abbas, I heard you. I heard you speak of hope,” she added. “We are not here to merely promise hope. Anyone can promise hope. We are here to deliver on hope. … The United States believes that this plan is realistic and implementable.”

Meanwhile, the United States is urging its closest Arab allies to thaw their relationship with Israel, even after the Arab League backed Abbas in unanimously rejecting the peace plan despite U.S. efforts to prevent such a resolution from moving forward. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reportedly working to broker a meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Netanyahu during an upcoming visit to the Middle East. A senior State Department official declined to comment on the reports in a briefing with reporters but said: “The issue of Israel’s reintegration in the region is something that the administration is focused on.”

Tuesday’s U.N. Security Council debate also provided further evidence that Britain was shifting further away from its traditional European partners and closer to Trump since its exit from the EU. Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Karen Pierce, said London remains committed to a Palestinian state, formed roughly on Israel’s pre-1967 borders with its Arab neighbors, and the establishment of a shared capital with Israel in Jerusalem. But Pierce also urged Palestinian leaders, along with their Israeli counterparts, to give the Trump plan “due consideration,” at least as a first step in direct negotiations.

“All of us here today understand that the proposal put forward by the United States may feel very different to what has been discussed before,” she told the council. “Time will be needed to digest them.”

There were signs that despite its diplomatic pressure campaign, the White House is struggling to win wider support for its Middle East strategy. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres stopped short of challenging the Trump plan, but he said the U.N. is bound by the terms of existing U.N. resolutions that the U.S. accord discards, including the need to negotiate peace on the basis of Israel’s pre-1967 borders with its Arab neighbors.

The U.N. envoy to the peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, warned that Israel’s recent announcement to expand settlements in occupied West Bank territory threatened to worsen an already volatile region. “The possible annexation of territory in the West Bank or similar move would have a devastating impact on the prospects for a two-state solution. It would close the door to negotiations, have negative repercussions across the region, and severely undermine opportunities for normalization and regional peace,” he said. 

Update, Feb. 12, 2020: This article was updated to include comments from a State Department spokeswoman.

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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