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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Trump's Mideast envoy offers little hope to peace process as he meets Abbas

  Jared Kushner's close ties with Israel have caused the Palestinians to mistrust him

Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank city of Ramallah protesting against the arrival of a US delegation headed by Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner ahead of his meeting with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas Momani/AFP Photo
Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank city of Ramallah protesting against the arrival of a US delegation headed by Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner ahead of his meeting with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas Momani/AFP Photo

The declaration by America's Middle East peace envoy Jared Kushner was bold, heralding a fresh diplomatic foray into the quagmire of Israeli-Palestinian relations. But Palestinian expectations were muted on Thursday.

President Trump is "very committed to achieving a solution that will be able to bring prosperity and peace to all people in the area", Mr Kushner said at the start of talks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.

Displaying the closeness towards Israel that has led him to be distrusted by some Palestinians, he added: "We really appreciate the commitment of the prime minister in engaging very thoughtfully and respectfully in the way the president has asked."

Mr Kushner described the US-Israel relationship as "stronger than ever".

Accompanied by deputy national security adviser Dina Powell and Jason Greenblatt, another of Mr Trump's hand-picked negotiators, Mr Kushner was due to hold talks later with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. He arrived late on Wednesday after talks in the Gulf, Jordan and Egypt.

"We have a lot of things to talk about: how to advance peace, stability, security and prosperity in the region and I think all are within reach," said Mr Netanyahu, whose government has markedly stepped up settlement activity in the occupied West Bank since the Trump administration entered office.

But seen from Ramallah, prospects for the US-brokered talks are bleak, largely because Palestinians believe Mr Kushner's team and his boss (who is also his father-in-law) are siding with Israel instead of applying pressure on Mr Netanyahu for concessions that would enable Palestinian statehood.

Mahmoud Al Aloul, a senior member of the Fatah Central Committee said past US negotiators had focused in their talks on "Israeli lies" about Palestinian incitement to violence. "I do not think the American envoys are coming carrying anything at all," he said.

Before the meeting, Ahmad Majdalani, an Abbas aide, had warned that the American efforts would come to naught unless Washington publicly recognised the need for a two-state solution to the conflict and a halt on Israeli settlement construction - steps it has refused to take despite repeated proddings from Mr Abbas.

Mr Trump has described the possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement as "the ultimate deal" but since he has taken office, it has become even more remote. Indeed, the situation on the ground in the West Bank heartland of the envisioned Palestinian state has deteriorated, according to the left-wing Israeli Peace Now movement, which monitors settlement activity.

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"The Israeli government definitely feels it has a freer hand with Trump," said Anat Ben-Nun, a Peace Now staffer. "Since the Trump administration came to power, we've seen the advancement of thousands of housing units through plans and tenders. This is a very sharp increase over the last year."

She said the government has also established a new settlement for the first time since 1992 and has retroactively legalised unauthorised settlement outposts despite a commitment not to do so.

"The entire purpose of settlement is to prevent the future viability of a Palestinian state so any expansion is problematic for achieving a two state solution," she said.

Settlement in Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem also made it increasingly difficult to see how the city could be divided as part of a compromise solution.

"If Trump is really interested in the ultimate deal as he calls it, he needs to be tougher on Israel on the issue of settlements," Ms Ben-Nun said.

Earlier this month, Mr Netanyahu visited the Betar Illit settlement in the southern West Bank, where he scooped cement from a plastic tub in symbolic dedication of a new neighbourhood that will have more than a thousand residential units. "There is no government that does more for the settlement in the land of Israel than this government under my leadership," he said.

In the view of Hani Masri, head of the Masarat think tank in Ramallah, Mr Kushner's talks in Arab countries were aimed at enlisting them to pressure the Palestinians to negotiate even though they are being offered no substantial political gains.

Mr Masri believes the Americans have decided to opt for a strategy of offering the Palestinians economic improvement as an inducement to negotiate.

"This means improving their situation under occupation without any commitment to two states or the halt of settlements," he said.

Mr Abbas is unlikely to agree, Mr Masri predicted, but would probably keep the contact going with the Americans "and keep the show going of a process without peace".

At the same time, Mr Abbas may resume pursuing other avenues, such as bringing a war crimes case against Israel in the International Criminal Court over its settlement policy. He may also try to upgrade Palestine's status at the UN to full membership.

"The Americans will then have to decide whether to continue the contacts or not," Mr Mari said.

Akiva Eldar, a columnist for Al Monitor and former diplomatic correspondent said it would have been better if Mr Kushner had stayed in Washington.

"This visit will be a setback. If you don't go forward, the frustration gets bigger. Every visit with zero results has negative effects because people lose any hope that there will be change."