Hope or Hype? This is just the beginning


Optimism was thick in the Washington air before President Abbas had even arrived in Washington. The former US envoys and diplomats talked of a low ebb and lack of trust, but the Palestinians were curiously upbeat.

President Trump set the tone ahead of his first meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas by repeating his desire to do the ultimate deal declaring there was “no reason whatsoever” why Israelis and Palestinians couldn’t make peace.

Israelis and Palestinians have no alternative but to play along and be positive. If the new US President has a vision, then they need to see the light too. Neither party wants to be portrayed as the naysayer, so for the time being they will follow Trump’s lead.

But where is he heading to? Yesterday’s meeting was extraordinary because Trump hyped up his ambition and created new hope. He reiterated that he isn’t interested in baby steps, he wants a final peace agreement and in his own words he is “committed,” will do “whatever is necessary” as a mediator, arbitrator or facilitator promising “we will get it done”.

Trump showered Abbas with praise, for speaking out against ISIS, cooperating with Israel on security and for the ongoing partnership with the US. But there was one minor blot on an otherwise perfect scorecard, when Trump said “there cannot be lasting peace unless the Palestinian leaders speak in a unified voice against incitement to violence”. White House sources also confirmed that the President had urged Abbas to cease PA payments to Palestinian prisoners and their families – something PA leaders have repeatedly said they will never stop.

Abbas echoed Trump’s ambition by talking of a new opportunity. He concluded his remarks in English by saying: “Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope.”

Trump critics, and many participants from previous rounds of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, deride the lack of detail and the chasm between the sky-high rhetoric and the absence of experience and expertise in the White House to deliver on the substance.

The crucial question is what happens next and who in the US team will lead the talks. Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt won plaudits for the depth and range of his meetings in March. There are rumours that Trump’s visit to Israel on May 22 will unveil a new initiative with a regional element. Trump may even use the opportunity to host a face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Abbas. But it would be foolish to expect a meeting to lead to anything without hundreds of hours of work on the detail of new ideas and envoys shuttling between Israelis and Palestinians to encourage painful concessions.

Trump isn’t interested in the details. He is driven by his instincts and he really believes a deal can be done. Cynics say he is just a showman; he wants the appearance of progress, with himself at the centre. He could host dramatic meetings and even convene a regional summit before the end of the year, the pictures would be compelling, what would it matter if in the long-term nothing was achieved?

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are playing along nicely, but behind the smiles there is real nervousness. As we have seen in the past, false hope carries a heavy cost. It raises expectations and can lead to upheaval and violence when those hopes are shattered.

James Sorene is CEO of BICOM.