What Trump's meeting with Abbas means for the Middle East

What's the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution?
What's the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution?

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Story highlights

  • On Wednesday, President Trump is expected to meet with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
  • Aaron David Miller: While the meeting will likely not lead to any major breakthroughs, it is significant for what it may portend

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The Palestinian issue is back in the headlines.

Monday, in a political statement issued in Qatar, Hamas updated, without superseding, its hardline 1988 founding charter. The statement -- a product of months, if not years, of internal Hamas wrangling -- was an effort to give a softer and more moderate cast to Hamas's image in the eyes of the international community.
Far more transactional than transformational in character, the statement's release was a clear effort to boost the organization's sagging political and economic fortunes, which in Gaza have reached crisis proportions, and to improve relations with Egypt.
Aaron David Miller
However, none of these word games will make the slightest difference now in Hamas' fortunes, its battle with its Fatah rival or its relationship with Israel.
And Wednesday in Washington, Hamas's nemesis, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, will sit down with Donald Trump in the White House -- Abbas's first visit in three years. Much like the Hamas charter update, there's probably less here than meets the eye. But this encounter is significant nonetheless for what it may portend for both leaders' futures.
Abbas needs a strong relationship with the US President, to preserve his fading relevance and the possibility that the US can help Palestinians achieve statehood. And Trump, who keeps promising to broker "the ultimate deal" between Israelis and Palestinians, can't do it without engaging the Palestinians.
Indeed, the challenge for Abbas is a steep one: Can he educate the President about the Palestinian story while persuading him that they are part of the solution, not the entire problem? If he can accomplish that and secure a follow up presidential visit to Ramallah should Trump visit later this month, he'd turn a pro forma meeting into a consequential one.

Abbas' goals

The new Palestinian Authority envoy in Washington, Husam Zumlot, has set a high bar for his boss's first meeting with Trump, opining in an interview last week that Abbas sees an "historic opportunity" to make peace and to forge a "strategic partnership" with the new President. The same talking points were almost certainly used during Abbas's initial encounters with George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
This time around, Abbas comes to Washington relatively secure in power but with little to show for ending the Israeli occupation, improving the economic fortunes of West Bankers or uniting a badly divided Palestinian national movement. Abbas is 82, and Trump may be the last US president with whom he deals. But cautious by nature, he's neither desperate for a deal nor determined to make one, let alone commit political suicide by compromising on Palestinian national aspirations.
Like Netanyahu, he has no real strategy for peace. The risk-averse Abbas will likely try to persuade Trump that a successful peace process will depend on a two-state solution and a political horizon that includes an agreement on borders, Jerusalem and refugees. He may well try to interest the President in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that includes all of these issues. That will also play to Trump's interest in involving the Sunni Arab states in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
In fact, there's a report from an Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs source that Trump officials preparing the President's visit to Israel had requested information on Netanyahu's views on the Arab peace plan.
Abbas likely won't get much traction on that plan now, certainly not before Trump sees Netanyahu again. But if he can try to create a relationship with Trump, play to his vanity and self-image as a great negotiator and persuade the President that the Palestinians want to be his partner, he'd be off to a good start. That would be doubly true if he can get a commitment from Trump that should the President visit Israel at the end of the month, he'll stop in Ramallah too --- and perhaps persuade him to endorse publicly a two-state solution while he's there.

Trump's objectives

Never before has a president so consistently committed himself to, nor boasted about, his capacity to make a Middle East peace deal. And never has a president placed the authority for helping him negotiate one in the hands of his closest adviser and son-in-law. In effect, Trump has put the family brand on a putative Middle East deal.
As with so many Trump pronouncements, how serious he is about following through is impossible to say. But if he wants to keep the ball rolling, he can't ignore the Palestinians. And this will mean creating some kind of relationship with Abbas, learning something about the Palestinian story and engaging in the annoying and frustrating business of pushing them -- usually without success -- to do things they don't want to do.
Just as Trump raised Israeli settlements with Netanyahu, the President will likely push likely Abbas hard on incitement, glorifying terrorists and PA financial support for Palestinian prisoners. Abbas will listen, pledge to do what he can and maybe even suggest reviving the US-Israeli-Palestinian anti-incitement committee created in the late 1990s.
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The bottom line on the Abbas meeting -- like the Netanyahu visit in February -- is that for now the emperor (in this case the peace process) has no clothes. It's not yet ready for prime time.
So whatever Trump's strategy, and it's not at all clear he has yet developed one, this meeting with Abbas and the Palestinians will be the first of many if the President is serious about involving his administration in a peacemaking effort.
But unlike a real estate deal, he just can't walk away when things go badly -- and they will. Indeed, Trump will need to invest persistently and patiently. And even if he does, there's not a shred of empirical evidence to indicate either Abbas or Netanyahu is ready to make big decisions on the core issues.
"There is no reason there's not peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- none whatsoever," the President opined last week in an interview.
Well, actually there are two, Mr. President -- Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.