Will President Trump Fold his Middle East Hand? 


Lost in the hurricane of news and “fake news” coming out of Washington was the announcement and signature on Thursday, October 12 of a reconciliation agreement between the two Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas.  The agreement, which was mediated and guaranteed by Egypt, was ten years in the making after Hamas violently expelled Fatah from Gaza in 2007.  Previous reconciliation agreements reached by the parties have collapsed over the details. This one may be no different given the wealth of unanswered questions that persist. 

The agreement perceives a unified government over the West Bank and Gaza scheduled to take over the reins of civil government on December 1. It has the political and financial backing of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. But there are problems. 

One Camel in the Tent is what happens to the 25,000 Hamas militant fighters in Gaza - the Izz ad Din al-Qassam Brigades.  In theory 3,000 West Bank PA police will redeploy to Gaza and join the Hamas police force.  They would also control the key Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. This would spell the end of the crippling boycott of transit, electricity and supplies that Fatah leader Abu Mazen has imposed on Gaza. 

A problem for us is the question of US assistance to the Palestinian Authority, which would be precluded to a unified Authority by our designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization.  While Hamas has adjusted its position on the question of two states, it is still a long way from complying with US requirement for recognition of UNSC Resolution 242 and 338, let alone recognition of Israel’s right to exist.  But with the backing of the bank accounts of Saudi Arabia and the UAE it may well be that the US is becoming superfluous. 

Almost half a century after President Anwar Sadat said the US holds99% of the cards in the Middle East, President Trump seems ready to throw in his hand. Could it be that Trump, the high stakes real estate gambler, has met his match? In this case Trump may have lost his appetite for the PLO which in this context would mean “Pot Limit Omaha,” a high stakes poker game that I had to look up.

If PA president Abbas thought there was a realistic prospect of an acceptable US brokered peace agreement with Israel, it is unlikely that he would have agreed to a deal with Hamas, no matter how preliminary. So, what we may be seeing is an active effort of the Trump Administration to write itself out of the script of the Palestinian issue. This would be consistent with Trump’s declared abandonment of the “two state solution.” 

Another question among many others is what happens to former Gaza strongman Muhammad Dahlan?  He has been an increasingly visible figure over the past several years in the question of Gaza’s future.  He has been responsible for constructing a reconciliation fund to distribute payments of about $50,000 to families of Palestinians killed in the conflict between Fatah and Hamas.  I knew Dahlan when I was Ambassador to Israel and he is no shrinking violet who will be satisfied with disappearing into the desert.  

The Palestinian moves might be secretly welcomed by Trump since by now he undoubtedly recognizes that he will not be able to negotiate his “ultimate” deal for a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian problem, at least not now.  Palestinian unity incorporating the "terrorist " organization Hamas would be an excellent excuse for his inability to deliver on his promise.  He would be free to do what he has done so very well in the past, which is to blame someone else for his failure.