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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 June 2018

Trump promises peace effort as he meets Palestinian president in Bethlehem

The Palestinians 'are committed to working with you to reach a historic peace deal between us and Israel', said Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas after the meeting with the US president.
US president Donald Trump welcomed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017.  Thomas Coex / AFP
US president Donald Trump welcomed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. Thomas Coex / AFP

JERUSALEM // US president Donald Trump said on Tuesday he would do “everything he can” to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians as he met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

Travelling from Jerusalem on the second day of his visit to the Holy Land, Mr Trump passed through Israel’s hulking concrete separation barrier – which surrounds Bethlehem on three sides – to enter the city in the occupied West Bank sacred to Christians around the world.

On the other side of the barrier, a large sign bearing photographs of Mr Trump and Mr Abbas against a backdrop of American and Palestinian flags greeted the US president.

“The city of peace welcomes the man of peace,” it read.

After holding talks with Mr Abbas, Mr Trump said: “Peace is a choice we must make each day, and the United States is here to help make that dream possible for young Jewish, Christian and Muslim children across the region.”

Donald TrumpPalestinian president Mahmoud Abbas meets US president Donald Trump on May 23, 2017 in Bethlehem, West Bank. PPO via Getty Images

“In this spirit of hope, we come to Bethlehem, asking God for a more peaceful, safe and more tolerant world for all.”

But 20 kilometres away in the West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian activists made it clear they had little faith in Mr Trump to improve their circumstances. At a protest by the Youth Against Settlements group, 40 American and Palestinian activists gathered at an Israeli checkpoint and held up a sign with a photograph of people stepping on a poster of the president’s face.

“Hope you know what we think of you, Mister President,” it said.

The US president said he was assured that both Mr Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu would work towards the goal of peace “in good faith”, later reiterating that Palestinians were ready to “reach for peace”.

Yet Mr Trump was scant on details about what a peace agreement between the two sides would entail.

Notably, the US president did not speak of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel, but instead talked about improving the Palestinian economy and strengthening counter-terrorism efforts – a possible reference to Israeli and Palestinian security coordination. Such coordination is controversial among Palestinians who see it as protecting Israelis at Palestinians’ expense.

In this, Mr Trump sounded a lot like previous US administrations that saw bolstering the Palestinian economy and Israeli-Palestinian security as a key component of the peace process, but failed to bring about a lasting settlement, said Khalil Shaheen, an analyst with the independent Palestinian think tank Masarat.

Later in the day, the US president visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, and the Israel Museum where he gave a speech offering a forceful defence of Israel. He again touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying he was “personally committed” to helping the two sides reach a deal.

Mr Abbas, for his part, told Mr Trump in Bethlehem that Palestinians are “committed to working with you to reach a historic peace deal”, and detailed Palestinian aspirations to build an independent state on the 1967 borders with a capital in East Jerusalem. The ageing leader said Palestinians do not oppose Jews, but rather Israeli policies of “occupation and settlements”. He stopped short of placing demands on Israel, however.

This omission was likely tactical on Mr Abbas’s part, said Mr Shaheen, adding that the Palestinian president wants to appear flexible at this early stage of potential peace negotiations.

“He [Mr Abbas] doesn’t want to be responsible for any failure of the new administration,” Mr Shaheen said. “He wants to throw the ball to Netanyahu and let Netanyahu refuse.”

Mr Netanyahu voiced support for a two-state solution in his famous 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, but in recent years has distanced himself from that position and made clear he does not believe the time is ripe for a deal.

Mr Abbas’s reluctance to make firm demands at this stage might also indicate that he’s realistic about what he can expect from the Trump White House. Mr Trump has said Israeli settlement construction in the occupied territory “may not be helpful” to Israeli-Palestinian peace but has never called for an outright freeze on Israeli building in the occupied West Bank.

“I think he understood in his meeting with Trump in the White House [in May] that Trump won’t support freezing settlement construction like the previous [Obama] administration did,” said Mr Shaheen.

Most of all, he added, Mr Abbas’s willingness to engage in peace negotiations constitutes a “survival policy” for the leader who has lost the trust of many Palestinians for his ineffectiveness at confronting the Israeli occupation. The peace process makes the Palestinian president look like he’s taking action, which will boost his legitimacy among his own people, said Mr Shaheen.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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