I am neither optimistic nor confident for Palestinians

James Zogby expresses doubt over seeing any movement towards a just peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, came to Washington this week to meet Donald Trump. Hussein Malla / AP Photo
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As has been the case with most issues, Mr Trump has been remarkably unpredictable when addressing the Middle East. During his presidential campaign, not only did his party's platform drop any mention of a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he promised to be "the most pro-Israel president ever". He also pledged to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to never pressure Israel to stop settlement expansion. After winning the presidency, Mr Trump appointed a trio of his closest advisers: David Friedman, a hardliner with deep ties to the West Bank settler movement, Jason Greenblatt, and son-in-law Jared Kushner as his envoys to address the conflicted region.

More recently, Mr Trump has been sending different signals. Following his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, and after Mr Greenblatt and Mr Kushner returned from their initial forays to the region, the White House began to sing another tune. The president now speaks confidently of his ambition to produce a "great deal" that would bring peace to the region. No details are offered, but we are told, in effect, to trust him that "it will happen" and "it'll be great".

While the elements of his plan have not been spelt out, it appears to involve restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks coupled with an effort to achieve cooperation between Israel and America's Arab allies.

Trump's confidence and his apparent change of tone have placed Palestinian leaders in a bind. They desperately need the US to support them, both politically and financially. They may be unclear about this president's views, but given their vulnerability, they fear alienating him. Facing these confounding realities, Mr Abbas has attempted to make the best of a difficult situation by expressing confidence in Mr Trump's abilities and calling his presidency a "historic opportunity" to make peace a reality.

But the Palestinian dilemma is real. In the first place, Mr Trump's refusal to commit to a Palestinian state and his lack of clarity creates a problem, since Palestinians do not know what is being asked of them or what they are being offered.

Arab leaders have, once again, reaffirmed their commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative, which establishes the goal of normalised ties with Israel only after Israel withdraws from the 1967 occupied territories and negotiates an equitable solution to the refugee issue. But the Israelis have refused to consider the essential terms of the initiative.

The talk in Washington is that Mr Trump will attempt to square this circle by proposing two parallel tracks: one, involving Israeli-Palestinian talks with no conditions, and another, bringing Israel and the Arab states together to discuss regional cooperation.

If this is, indeed, to be the process, it sets up a dangerous trap for Palestinians and the Arab states. The US and Israel may want the appearance of a "peace process" to provide a cover for efforts to create Israel-Arab cooperation to fight extremism and Iran. But the danger for Palestinians is clear. They've been down this road before: an endless process with no outcome. The danger for Arabs is also clear. Even the appearance of normalised ties with Israel, at the expense of the Palestinians, would only inflame extremists.

Both Palestinians and Arabs are well aware of these dangers, a proposal that, in effect, turns the Arab Peace Initiative into a non-starter. Meanwhile, Washington's think tanks are still proposing limited improvements in the "quality of life" for Palestinians and putting the onus on the PA to drop their "unrealistic demands" regarding settlements, Jerusalem, and refugees, all the while pretending that Arab states can walk over the Palestinians to establish ties with Israel in order to create a united front against Iran and extremism. None of this has worked in the past, nor will it work today.

For its part, Israel, despite some mild resistance from the administration regarding its settlement policy, has continued with massive new construction projects in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

It's clear that if Mr Trump is at all serious about reining in Israeli behaviour, he will have to crack the whip. But this will not happen since Congress still has a critical role to play in tempering whatever any president may want to do.

Congress is pushing hard to punish any efforts that oppose Israeli settlement expansion. They have urged the president to demand that the PA withhold funds paid to the families of prisoners, or face a cut in US financial support. And they are threatening punitive cuts to the UN and other agencies that oppose the occupation or endorse Palestinian demands.

Those who think that the president can control Congress need only look at his inability to have his agenda pass legislative muster.

So while I understand Mr Abbas's need to not alienate Mr Trump, I am neither confident nor optimistic that we will see any movement towards a just peace.

Decades ago, when I was just beginning my work, I learnt a lesson from a mentor, Ibrahim Abu Lughod. He taught me not to pay attention to the ebbs and flows of daily news. To do so, he warned, created unwise optimism or unwarranted despair. Instead, he advised me to focus on the deep currents that defined the political landscape. These do not point in a promising direction.

Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa