On May 15, 2017, Arab Center Washington (ACW) sponsored a luncheon briefing featuring the new Chief Representative of the Palestinian General Delegation to the United States, Ambassador Husam S. Zomlot, who is also a strategic advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The talk was titled “The Trump-Abbas Meeting and the Palestinian Policy toward Renewed Peace Efforts.” The event was attended by representatives of the media, the diplomatic and business communities, NGOs, and academia.
ACW Executive Director Khalil Jahshan introduced the subject matter, saying that President Donald Trump’s recent conversations with Middle Eastern regional leaders highlight his administration’s commitment to be involved in renewed peace negotiations. Indeed, the president has characterized the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as “the ultimate deal.” Trump’s upcoming visit to the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s recent remarks recognizing the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and the fact that plans for the US embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem have been put on hold all have raised hopes and expectations throughout the region. These are tempered by many concerns and apprehensions as well, Jahshan cautioned.
Ambassador Zomlot began his remarks by marking the 69th anniversary of Nakba, the catastrophic dispossession of the Palestinian people of their land in 1948, which is commemorated on May 15 each year by Palestinians throughout the world. He said that the world must acknowledge the events and wounds of 1947-48 in order to move forward, and the Palestinians need to grasp their narrative and story. He characterized the Nakba not as a static occurrence but as an ongoing and unjust historical event that continues in many forms, such as Israeli land grabs, military occupation, and imprisonment of Palestinians. He reminded the audience that 1,700 Palestinians are on a hunger strike now, which has lasted 27 days. Zomlot added that 2017 also marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, 70 years since the partition plan of Palestine, 50 years since the June 1967 war, and “zero years” since the two-state solution—he expressed hope that 2017 would herald a different future for the Palestinians.
Khalil Jahshan introduces Amb. Husam Zomlot.
Before the US presidential campaign last year, Ambassador Zomlot said, the Palestinians did not know Trump because there was no political history for them to consult. Some of Trump’s promises were worrisome to them, such as the embassy move, legalizing settlements, and ending the two-state solution. Nevertheless, US assistance to the Palestinian Authority and continuing channels of communication reinforce the strategic partnership between them. To that end, in February the Palestinian head of general intelligence came to Washington, and in the same month, CIA director Mike Pompeo went to Ramallah to meet with Abbas. These developments, in addition to Trump’s invitation to Abbas to visit Washington, are significant in that they affirm Trump’s desire to mediate the end of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Trump advisor Jason Greenblatt also traveled to Palestine recently, where he met with Abbas and his senior advisors as well as visited a refugee camp and met with Palestinian youth; this afforded him a look at the human side of the situation.
Abbas’s visit to Washington, Zomlot continued, showed the ability of the US establishment, which has the institutional memory of the US-Palestine relationship, to intervene early on and deliver the right message. For their part, Palestinians conveyed that they are a major pillar in peace efforts and that they are ready to “make the leap.” In sum, he said that Abbas’s visit achieved the following:
- a confirmation of Trump’s desire and will to intervene as a mediator and make peace;
- the Palestinians’ ability to clarify their position credibly, and to present their accumulated knowledge about the situation and their commitment;
- a solidification of the US-Palestinian Authority (PA) bilateral strategic relationship that stands on its own;
- the formation of a trust-based relationship between Trump and Abbas; and,
- the reintroduction of the Palestine issue in Washington and on a global level.
Zomlot reiterated the Palestinian requirements for the resolution of the conflict: a two-state solution, which means full sovereignty over the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital; self-determination; and addressing the legitimate aspirations and grievances of Palestinian refugees. “Our position has to be made clear that any deal cannot leave anyone behind,” he added.
He explained that the Palestinian Authority is “relatively hopeful” now that the US president has articulated his personal commitment to resolving the conflict. Trump is reexamining the situation with many sectors of the government feeding into the process, and he has already appointed his closest advisors and family members to lead this effort, which Zomlot said are signs of seriousness. The Palestinians’ task is to expose them to history and information. However, there is no clear approach or mechanism so far; the way forward was not discussed. At present, he said, the US administration is addressing both sides separately and bilaterally. What is clear is that the old “peace industry” needs to end; it produced a lasting process and not a lasting peace. He said that all the plans going back to 1991 have failed because each was designed to prevent an outcome, rather than to achieve one.
Ambassador Zomlot explained that the success or failure of future efforts will depend on the United States’ ability and willingness to:
- play the role of mediator;
- treat the Palestinians as key to US interests;
- understand that Palestinians are not asking for anything that compromises Israel’s security—that they genuinely recognize Israel;
- recognize that allowing Israel to act as above the law does not bring peace;
- understand that the PA’s support of families of prisoners does not promote violence but is intended to offer social assistance and relief; and,
- apprehend that Palestinians do not “incite against Jews”; in fact, Zomlot said, Palestinians incite against Israel’s expansion, occupation, treatment by settlers, human rights violations, and all other forms of injustice perpetrated against them.
Questions from the audience addressed a number of issues, including security coordination between the PA and Israel, the regional approach to solving the conflict, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and the image of Palestinians in the United States.
The situation of the Palestinian refugees and the right of return are crucial, Zomlot concluded. The right of return of the six million Palestinian refugees must be recognized and acknowledged, and the ethnic cleansing of 1947-48 needs to be reversed. He said that international standards can be used (e.g., as in Kosovo) to resolve their plight, including internationally supported options like compensation for lost property.