President Donald Trump threatened Thursday to cut off as much as $700 million in annual U.S. aid to the Palestinians if their leaders don't begin serious peace negotiations with Israel, but the Palestinian leadership remained defiant.
Defiance might make Palestinian leaders feel good momentarily, but it doesn't make much sense to deliberately antagonize their largest donor and the only arbiter of the peace process with Israel. From all appearances, the Palestinians are now digging in for a fight with the Trump administration, and they don't seem to be interested in deviating from their hardline position anytime soon.
Tensions have been running high between the U.S. and Palestinians since President Trump's Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and eventually move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. The decision did not technically change the status of Jerusalem in final bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but it certainly made it clear that America would no longer wait for negotiations to make its positions known.
Speaking to reporters in Davos, Switzerland, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just before the two held a meeting, President Trump said of the Palestinians: "We give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support ... that money is on the table and the money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace."
In response, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said: "Palestinian rights are not up to any bargain and Jerusalem is not for sale. The United States can't have any role (in seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal) unless it retreats its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital."
Vice President Mike Pence wrapped up a trip to the region Tuesday where he met with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Palestinian leaders boycotted his trip over President Trump's announcement that the U.S. now recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Abbas last week also railed against the Trump administration's recognition of Jerusalem and a recent decision by President Trump to withhold $60 million in U.S. assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the primary vehicle for administering aid to Palestinians in refugee camps across the region.
The move has prompted alarm because the White House tied continued assistance to much-needed reforms at UNRWA. The agency has a bloated budget, inflates refugee numbers, and has known ties to extremist elements in Gaza.
Now the Palestinians are concerned the U.S. is considering a full aid cut of $700 million unless they come to the negotiating table with Israel. Abbas and company have refused thus far, prompting Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, to ask: "Where is the Palestinian Sadat?" – referring to the Egyptian leader who visited Israel to make peace in 1977.
And now more trouble for the Palestinians may be looming. For much of the past year, Congress has debated the Taylor Force Act, a bill that would dramatically slash aid to the Palestinian Authority over its payments to convicted terrorists and their families. The bill has overwhelming bipartisan support. It has moved its way through the House and Senate and appears primed for a vote in the near future.
With his back up against a wall, Abbas earlier this month lambasted the Trump administration in a speech to the Palestine Liberation Organization's Central Council meeting. The aging Palestinian leader repeatedly cursed President Trump. "May your house fall into ruin," he said.
Where does this leave the Palestinians? After a brief honeymoon in March when Abbas visited the White House and the Palestinian flag appeared alongside the stars and stripes, it now appears as if their worst nightmares about the Trump administration have come true. When President Trump was first elected, the Palestinian leadership was wary of his talk about the "ultimate deal," fearing he might try to force a proposal unilaterally upon them.
Rumors are now flying that the Trump administration has not only Israeli support for a broader peace initiative, but also support of the Arab states. In other words, Arab nations appear eager to concede on Palestinian issues in order to advance their ties with the White House and Israel.
Even worse for Abbas, the Arab states may even be in agreement with President Trump on a range of "core" issues, including Palestinian refugees and borders. And, if news reports are true, it will be the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis that President Trump will propose for a Palestinian capital. This would be viewed as an insult to Abbas, as his Palestinian negotiators have rejected this several times in the past.
American officials have consistently insisted that the leaked versions of their peace plan are not indicative of the plan itself. They have also countered that the Palestinian furor over President Trump's announcements will dissipate over time, particularly once the Palestinians realize that there are other concessions they can still grab at the negotiating table.
Some Arab states have urged Abbas to get back to the table and work with President Trump in pursuit of the "ultimate deal." Jordan's King Abdullah this week described the Palestinian uproar as a "hiccup."
Still, other actors are less encouraging. Reports suggested this week that former Secretary of State John Kerry may be exhorting Abbas to resist the White House peace initiative.
But Abbas can only fend off the inevitable for so long. The Trump administration may still be finding its footing on a number of issues, but the Middle East does not seem to be one of them. A process is now underway. Abbas will likely need to get on board, or he will be left behind.