Palestinian demonstrators shout slogans as they hold crossed-out posters depicting US Vice-President Mike Pence and US President Donald Trump during a protest against Pence's visit to Israel, in the West Bank city of Nablus on January 22, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Abed Omar Qusini

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The recent treatment of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) by US President Donald Trump is nothing short of abusive. The Trump administration delivered a gut punch to Abbas by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Adding insult to injury, Trump explained that the move “took [Jerusalem] off the table. We don’t have to talk about it any more.”

He has also held up US$65 million in funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN agency for Palestinian refugee relief.

Trump’s anti-Palestinian bent will undoubtedly shape the peace framework his administration is currently crafting. The Palestinians expect that it will allow Israel to annex 10% of the West Bank and that the capital of a slated Palestinian state will be relegated to the outskirts of Jerusalem. Abbas is understandably agitated, and recently railed that “the ‘deal of the century’ is the slap of the century, and we will not accept it.”

Rather than address Palestinian concerns, the US is attempting to strong-arm Abbas into acquiescence. Trump is threatening to close the Palestine Liberation Organization’s offices in Washington and insists that UNRWA funding will not be renewed unless the PA enters talks on Trump’s terms.

Why is the Trump administrations policy so one-sided? Are there strategic considerations behind it or is it a reflection of the “unique” style of the current occupant of the White House?

To answer this question, it is worthwhile to examine the roots of Palestinian-US relations. The United States government has not always taken the Palestinians seriously. Just a few decades ago, it viewed the plight of the Palestinians as a humanitarian concern rather than a valid nationalist concern.

Arafat and the rise of Fatah

From a strategic viewpoint this made perfect sense. The Palestinian political leadership had been shattered in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Regional actors treated the rudderless Palestinians as pawns in a complex game of regional politics. The Palestinian political organizations were often merely flimsy shells run by Arab states. The PLO was originally designed to further Egyptian designs, as well as to further Syrian interests and so on. Correspondingly, the United States felt that it could achieve its major goals by nurturing relations with the major Arab states, while the Palestinians could be ignored.

The Fatah movement under Yasser Arafat worked hard to change this. Using a combination of internecine political maneuvering, high-profile terror attacks and the destabilization of unfriendly Arab states, Arafat transformed the fragmented Palestinian nationalist movement into a coherent whole. In the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, Fatah took over the PLO and converted it from an Egyptian vehicle to an independent and (relatively) united movement.

The diplomatic dividends of the consolidation were extraordinary. By the mid-1970s, the Arab League and the United Nations recognized the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The Arab states increasingly insisted that the PLO be taken into account. By the late 1970s the US could not ignore these developments. President Jimmy Carter raised the ire of pro-Israeli advocates when he stated in 1977 that “there has to be a homeland provided for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered for many, many years.”

The First Intifada was another watershed in Palestinian-US relations. The protests against Israeli occupation confounded Israel strategically. The Palestinian national movement capitalized on its momentum by maintaining a united front. The uprising started from grassroots civil-society organizations over which the PLO had little influence. However, when the US attempted to negotiate directly with local leaders, they insisted that the PLO represent them in talks.

The process paved the way for Israeli and US recognition of the PLO and the launch of the Oslo Process. Indeed, Palestinian influence in the Arab world in the 1990s was such that most analysts and practitioners assumed that the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the key to regional stability. As a testament to Palestinian relevance, the PA was partially funded by the United States, while its security forces received US training and logistical support.

Trump seems to enjoy bullying the weak. Therefore, he is being extraordinarily graceless. However, Trump’s behavior is in essence a tactless acknowledgement of geopolitical reality

The strategic importance of the PA has plummeted since then, for two reasons. First, the Second Intifada was a disaster for the Palestinian national movement. Palestinian terrorism was curbed while Israel avoided making any concessions. The Israeli victory was overwhelming, and it has maintained the upper hand ever since.

Second, the nationalist movement was effectively split. Hamas gained influence during the Second Intifada and won the 2006 PA elections. Fatah would not accept the electoral outcome and remained in power in the West Bank, while Hamas seized the Gaza Strip. The end result was a weak and divided Palestinian nationalist movement unable to play a meaningful regional role.

President Trump seems to enjoy bullying the weak. Therefore, he is being extraordinarily graceless. However, Trump’s behavior is in essence a tactless acknowledgement of geopolitical reality. The administrations of George W Bush and Barack Obama disregarded the PA as well, but did so in more diplomatic fashion. Indeed, this is typical US behavior. In case after case, from South Vietnam to Kurdistan, the story is the same: The US habitually abandons weak allies.

If the PA wants to be taken seriously again, it must rebuild its regional and international significance. This would involve achieving two difficult tasks. First, it must take a page out of Arafat’s handbook and establish unity in the nationalist movement. Real reconciliation with Hamas is essential. It would then have to rebuild influence in the Arab world. To do so, it must prove useful in the current obsession of Arab governments: containing Iran.

This may sound unlikely, but the two goals are compatible and mutually reinforcing. A deal successfully reuniting the Palestinian nationalist movement should involve true power-sharing with Hamas in return for the Islamic group cutting ties with Iran. A united Palestinian nationalist movement opposed to Iranian influence would be in a position to rebuild ties with the Arab world and restore its diplomatic position.

Until these steps are taken, Trump and his successors will continue to bully the Palestinians.

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Shaiel Ben-Ephraim

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Shaiel is the 2015 winner of the Kimmerling Prize. He recently finished his PhD at the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

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