Husam Zomlot, who was forced out of Washington by the Trump administration, speaks exclusively to The National from his new London HQ
Palestine’s exiled envoy: We will never submit to Trump and become a nation of beggars
There is no Palestinian official who has felt the isolation of US President Donald Trump’s policies towards Ramallah in the last 18 months more than Husam Zomlot.
It was in March 2017, just two months after the American leader’s inauguration, that he would be appointed as Palestinian ambassador to Washington. As months went by, his phone would fall silent.
The president slowly chipped away at the Palestinian cause, dismissing their claims for resolving the decades-long conflict with Israel and making moves in favour of Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government as official contact between American and Palestinian officials virtually ground to a halt.
The final blow for Mr Zomlot was in September when Washington shuttered the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office, revoked the visas of his wife and children, and sent him packing. He maintains that both he and the PLO chose to leave of their own volition.
Now, the Palestinian emissary has found a new home – a modest office block close to the glitzy embassy mansions of Knightsbridge, the diplomatic heartbeat of London – that captures their isolation. A short stroll from Hammersmith train station in the capital’s West End, the office has so much space, you can almost hear the echo of your own thoughts.
Like his colleagues in the West Bank, he remains defiant, refusing to bow to the Trump administration and what he says are its attempts to turn the Palestinians into a “nation of beggars” subservient to Washington and the Israelis.
“Ever since I arrived in Washington, one of the things I was told, by senior officials in the White House, every time we discussed things and I come up with our vision and position, they would say ‘these are old ideas,’” he said in an hour-long interview with The National in his new West London office. He speaks quickly and fluently, a draped Palestinian flag behind his right shoulder, to the occasional background rumble of a train pulling out of the nearby station.
“I’m afraid this term has to be taken with a grain of salt. I’m afraid this term ‘old ideas’ means you have to adopt new ideas. What they mean by new ideas is either full submission or redefining our rights to less than the collective self-determination of independent sovereignty.”
Those ‘new ideas’ refer to a range of options reportedly proposed by Trump’s Middle East advisers - envoy Jason Greenblatt, son-in-law Jared Kushner and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman - that the Palestinians have baulked at, such as confederacy with Jordan and Abu Dis, not Jerusalem, as the capital of a semi-autonomous Palestinian state.
In parallel to those offers, they have tried to change the reality on the ground through a series of unilateral moves the Palestinians say disqualified the US role as an impartial broker in the conflict.
Mr Trump relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem, effectively recognising the contested city as Israel’s, cut all American aid to the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees in a blow to their right of return and slashed funding for East Jerusalem hospitals that service sick Palestinians.
“At least my kids are now in school, but as a result of the US administration’s decision some kids in Gaza might not have a classroom in the very near future,” he says, brushing off the impact on him personally.
Washington says the moves were a reaction to Palestinian criticism and refusal to come to the negotiating table, a suggestion that he counters passionately.
“It’s very dangerous to say a big part of the problem was the Palestinian leadership’s inability… no, that’s again blaming the besieged and the occupied,” he says.
“This leadership has been transformational in their ability to start a revolution...to bring the people of Palestine together under one banner that is the PLO and...their ability to politicise and humanise our cause. They made sure nobody speaks on our behalf.”
At 44, Mr Zomlot has been labelled part of a younger generation rising through the Palestinian leadership, a movement that has been dominated by the likes of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas for decades. President Abbas is now 82-years-old and in the 14th year of his presidency.
Though Mr Zomlot has a doctorate from London’s prestigious SOAS University, he had a less prosperous start to life. He was born, and spent his early days, in a refugee camp in southern Gaza, before being accepted onto the UK’s prestigious Chevening scholarship that grants access to a Western education for applicants from around the world.
One might expect a rising diplomat to agree that the peace process needs an injection of youthful thinking and a jolt of energy, but Mr Zomlot’s view differs.
“This is not about the who; this is more about what,” he says. “Young people do not necessarily come with young ideas, sometimes young people like myself can still be holding very old and bad ideas, and sometimes old people can bring very fresh and new ideas.”
Seventeen years ago Mr Zomlot, barely out of British university, was handpicked by Yasser Arafat, the charismatic Palestinian leader who died in 2004, to serve as deputy ambassador in the same mission he now heads. More recently, he has served as an adviser to Mr Abbas, a role he continues to this day.
He is fiercely defensive of their legacies. “I have worked with the first generation of the movement, I worked with all the founders of the movement,” he says. “I tell you, the problem is not them.” (What did he say is the problem?)
The problem, he says lies in Tel Aviv, “Netanyahu is the one breaking the backbone of the two-state solution,” he said. “I hope my generation can do a fraction of what the previous generation has managed to do.”
Many on the Palestinian street disagree with Mr Zomlot. Mr Abbas, their leader in the West Bank, is increasingly unpopular for his perceived inaction and inability to deliver progress on the conflict. Palestinian security forces are reviled for collaborating with the Israeli military.
But, despite the trauma of the last 18 months, the Palestinian diplomat still manages to take pride in what has become a very bleak state of affairs, “What happened in the last year was unprecedented,” he says, “we were the only side in this world that said no to Mr Trump”.
For Palestinians at home feeling the brunt of Trumpism, that may be their only consolation.
Given the hostility to the Trump administration to historical Palestinian demands, some have suggested they should try to wait out the presidency, Mr Zomlot says this is not going to happen.
“We cannot afford that,” he said. “People are losing their lives, losing their property, losing their dignity. What we need to do is activate and strengthen something that already exists – the international order.”
“International order is the solution to the mess we are in, not waiting out Mr Trump. We cannot expect just one country to bring about peace between the two sides, only the world can do so.”