Abbas pitching himself to Trump as 'strategic partner' for peace

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Story highlights

  • Trump has spoken repeatedly about wanting to broker the "ultimate deal"
  • Trump is convening his top foreign policy advisers for the Abbas visit

Washington (CNN)Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrives at the White House Wednesday with one sales objective in mind: to present himself and his government as a "strategic partner" for peace with the United States.

So explained his new representative to the US, close aide Husam Zumlot, ahead of the first face-to-face meeting between his boss and President Donald Trump.
"President Abbas is coming to give peace a well-deserved chance and fully embrace this historic opportunity for another chance for peace presented by President Trump," Zumlot told CNN. "We are focused on seizing this moment and giving this all that we have."
Trump has spoken repeatedly about wanting to broker the "ultimate deal" between Israelis and Palestinians since taking office, inviting Abbas to the White House during a March phone call focused on ways to restart the peace process.
In an interview with Reuters last week, Trump said: "I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians. There is no reason why there's not peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- none whatsoever."
Trump has already dispatched his Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, to the region, where he met with Abbas and members of Palestinian civil society in Ramallah in addition to a variety of Israeli leaders and groups. The President hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in February.
Trump is convening his top foreign policy advisers for the Abbas visit. Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are all expected to join the talks, along with Greenblatt, Trump son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner, chief of staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon, US officials said.
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Zumlot noted that the Palestinians were prepared to make the case to Trump -- seen as very sympathetic to the Israeli perspective, as are many of his advisers -- that they are taking steps toward peace.
Zumlot said Abbas would detail how his government has sought to improve security cooperation with Israel and build up its institutions. At the same time he would explain Palestinian "aspirations, hopes and accumulated experiences."
But Aaron David Miller, a Mideast peace envoy to four US presidents now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, said Abbas has a steep challenge in trying to turn Trump into a partner.
"Can he educate the President about the Palestinian story while persuading him that they are part of the solution, not the entire problem?," asked Miller.
US officials said Trump is expected to press Abbas to crack down on incitement by Palestinians -- be it government officials or civil leaders -- to engage in violence against Israel.
Acknowledging the need for improvement, Zumlot said that the government is looking for ways to address it.
"We will never love occupation," he said, referring to Israeli control of lands Palestinians claim. "But we do have the task of separating the occupation and not confusing that with the Israeli people. Our issue is not with them. We have to make a distinction and we are trying our best to find ways to deal with the concerns."
Abbas can also expect the US to raise the Palestinian Authority's compensation of Palestinians whose family members were killed while engaging in terrorist attacks against Israelis.
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Zumlot stressed the practice is not to "reward martyrs," but rather to direct the family away from violence.
"If the breadwinner of the family is gone, we can either help them look for a different future or we are just send them to Daesh," he said, using the Arabic name for ISIS.
Abbas' visit comes as Trump is expected to visit Israel later this month and meet with both Abbas and Netanyahu.
Zumlot said no matter how well Abbas' visit this week goes, an announcement by Trump on the future of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem could destroy the momentum created by any of his new initiatives.
Jerusalem, which both sides consider their capital, has traditionally been a "final status issue" to be decided in a peace deal.
The issue is just one of many that have caused consternation for Palestinians and their allies. Trump pledged to move the embassy during his campaign, a statement that was enthusiastically welcomed by Israel supporters.
Following his election, Trump appointed David Friedman, a hardline supporter of Israeli settlements, as his ambassador to Israel. And he seemed to abandon a decades-long US commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which the Palestinians would have their own state alongside Israel.
He has since stalled on relocating the embassy. But just Tuesday night Vice President Mike Pence said at an Israeli Independence Day celebration at the White House that the US was giving "serious consideration" to the move.
Still, Zumlot is encouraged by Trump's business background, hoping that will translate into a sense of fairness.
"An experienced dealmaker knows the deal only happens and can be sustained if it's a win-win for both sides," he said. "I think President Trump understands this."