If there has been a consistent theme to President Trump’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has been trying to find ways to get around the Palestinian Authority. Whether it be the embrace from day one of an outside-in approach – designed to craft better relations between Israel and Arab states and then use those governments to pressure the Palestinians to make peace with Israel – or blindsiding the Palestinians with the December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and insisting that the issue is now “off the table,” the Trump administration clearly views President Abbas and the PA as obstacles to be circumvented.
In truth, it is easy to see why anyone would find Abbas frustrating, with his tendency to ghost interlocutors from Ehud Olmert to Barack Obama and his recent inability to refrain from publicly spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The PA’s boycott of the Trump administration since December 6 also makes it natural for the White House to try and find ways around the PA in order to present its self-described deal of the century, which explains Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt’s recent diplomatic voyage to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Israel. Kushner’s interview this past weekend spelled this strategy out explicitly, saying about Abbas, “He has said publicly he will not meet us and we have opted not to chase him. We have continued our work on the plan and on building consensus on what is realistically achievable today and what will endure for the future. If President Abbas is willing to come back to the table, we are ready to engage; if he is not, we will likely air the plan publicly.”
Unfortunately for the Trump team, it is difficult to see this strategy finding success. Speaking directly to the Palestinian people is important and could in theory work to create pressure on a reluctant leadership, but only if the Trump administration is offering something that would be attractive to ordinary Palestinians and only if the administration had a built up store of credibility with ordinary Palestinians. Neither of these factors is present. The peace plan reportedly tilts very heavily in favor of Israel, Trump’s Jerusalem decision was unpopular with Palestinians, and the American team has a general tendency to come down hard on the Palestinian side without any real critiques of the Israelis. Abbas is deeply unpopular among Palestinians for his authoritarianism and the PA’s general corruption, but if there is anyone who is even less popular, it is Trump. Going over Abbas’s head is unlikely to bring a wave of pressure from ordinary Palestinians, and the Arab states that Kushner and Greenblatt have been cajoling have all publicly set redlines – 1967 borders with swaps and a capital in East Jerusalem – that the Trump team has not approached endorsing.
Sidelining the PA when it comes to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is not going to work. But the Trump administration has hit upon a good policy; the problem is that they are applying it in the wrong place. Where they should be sidelining the PA is in trying to make Gaza liveable, yet that is precisely the area where the U.S. is working hard to ensure that giving the PA a role is the only way for any policies to be enacted.
The PA is the party most directly responsible for the worsening of Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. It originates with Hamas’s takeover in 2007, the resulting Israeli-Egyptian blockade intended to dislodge Hamas, and Hamas’s constant diversion of aid money and construction materials toward building terrorist infrastructure in the form of rockets and attack tunnels. Nevertheless, conditions in Gaza went from bad to appalling as a result of Abbas’s decision to cut and then freeze salaries to PA employees there and depriving Gaza of any real cash flow, and Abbas’s sanctions on Hamas that led to electricity cuts. When Egypt leaned on both the PA and Hamas to reconcile in a deal that would bring the PA back to Gaza and thus end the sanctions and the blockade, Abbas was the one who had to be dragged along. This is not to suggest in any way that Hamas was blameless in this episode – particularly given the bombing of PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s convoy almost as soon as it entered Gaza for negotiations – but even a cursory discussion with PA officials reveals almost immediately their preference to continue to suffocate Hamas come hell or high water and with little regard for Gaza’s two million residents.
The U.S. and Israel have spent a decade trying to come up with ways to return the PA to Gaza as a condition of ending the enclave’s extreme isolation, separate from the issue of having the West Bank and Gaza united under PA role in order to implement a viable two-state solution. Linking PA control to normalizing Gaza’s situation is predicated on two assumptions: that Hamas cannot be dealt with under any circumstances, and that the PA is part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Let’s leave the first part of this equation aside for the moment, since it requires a much longer explication; the second though strikes me at this point in time as incorrect. The PA has purposefully and actively made the situation worse, and demonstrated that it would rather see Gaza descend into a hellscape than accede to a deal in which Hamas survives in any form. One may think that on balance this policy makes sense – although for the record, I do not – but it means that hanging all hopes on returning the PA to Gaza is a recipe for continued inaction and fiddling while Gaza burns.
Furthermore, it is unclear to me that returning the PA to Gaza in the current environment would even be feasible. Gaza residents know full well the PA’s role in making their lives even more miserable than they already were, and the PA is hated for a reason. If the PA were to suddenly take charge of Gaza again, billions of dollars in aid money might be enough to make Gazan Palestinians let bygone be bygones, but it assumes an influx of money from the U.S., Europe, and the Gulf that may not materialize (and in the American case, the evidence suggests precisely that it will not). Because the PA is in no condition to resume ruling over Gaza at the moment, an alternative path to providing aid is needed, and it cannot be dependent on the PA controlling the crossings and Gaza’s governmental institutions.
There are ways to make Gaza more inhabitable without being held hostage to Abbas’s intransigence. Israel can issue work permits in Israel to a pilot number of Gaza residents as it does for 50,000 Palestinians daily from the West Bank; it can end the export restrictions that currently allow only tomatoes, eggplants, and a precise quota of scrap metal into Israel from Gaza despite the fact that exports do not constitute a security risk the way dual-use imports do; it can increase the electricity supply to Gaza without abiding by the PA’s refusal to pay for more than four hours of electricity a day. There are signs that Israel is beginning to come around on adopting measures that do not involve the PA, such as the just-approved plan to build a solar field at the Erez crossing to unilaterally provide Gaza with more electricity. Even Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, after years of taking the most hawkish possible position toward Gaza and Hamas, has embraced the approach of going around the PA, proposing a plan this week to set up a dedicated port for Gaza in Cyprus whereby Israel can vet what comes in. It is time to stop assuming that the answer to Gaza immediate problems is returning it to PA control, when sidelining the PA from any role may in fact be the only thing that can save Gaza.