With great fanfare, Vice President Mike Pence announced in an October speech that he planned on touring the Middle East to engage with the region’s Christian population and end their persecution. However, President Donald Trump’s December recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, dissenting from decades-long bipartisan US policy, threw a wrench in Pence’s plans. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas lambasted the White House’s move and urged international condemnation of Trump’s policy shift. Suddenly, Egyptian and Palestinian Christian leaders refused to meet with Pence, embarrassing the U.S. vice president. While in Israel, Pence emphasized the importance of advancing the peace process, but he could not land a single meeting with any Palestinian official let alone win Abbas’ approval to re-engage in U.S.-led peace negotiations. While derided as a weak leader, Abbas has ironically gained dramatic leverage over Trump by refusing to permit the United States to serve as the principal mediator in the peace talks. Since the American president has wagered his personal prestige on securing Middle East peace, his inability to gain Palestinian buy-in for the process led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, highlights a reversal in fortune for the Palestinian leader. Suddenly, Abbas is in the driver’s seat, with Ramallah holding the keys over one of Trump’s foreign policy priorities.

The White House significantly misread the impact of its Jerusalem decision. A Trump administration official told reporters on December 15, “The last couple weeks in the region have been a reaction to the Jerusalem decision. This [Pence] trip is part of … the ending of that chapter, and the beginning of what I will say is the next chapter.” U.S. officials assumed that the Palestinian leadership’s harsh response would be only a few weeks long before beginning the “next chapter” and a resumption of the Trump administration-led peace process.

However, over three months later, the White House is still stuck in the mud and unable to proceed with its initiative. “We state that from now on we refuse to cooperate in any form with the U.S. in its status of a mediator, as we stand against its actions,” Abbas told Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 12. Meeting both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian President within a few weeks of one another, the Russian leader comes off as rather statesman-like and in a role traditionally played by the Americans. U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt arrived in the region last month to discuss peace efforts but wasn’t able to meet with a PA official. Abbas has ensured that without genuine U.S. concessions, senior Trump administration officials are incapable of securing meetings with any Palestinian leaders, making the United States appear weak and isolated. “I have to be honest. Since that [September] meeting, we have made very little tangible progress,” Greenblatt admitted in a January 31 speech on the peace process.

Abbas clarified at his February 20 UN address that the only way to win back Ramallah would be a suspension of Trump’s Jerusalem recognition and halting the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Yet such steps would alienate Trump’s domestic Evangelical base along with top advisers including Pence, who will be critical for the president during the 2018 Congressional elections and the ongoing turbulent Russian probe. Thus, Trump is sandwiched between the realpolitik necessity of offering a genuine concession to the Palestinians and maintaining the support of a key domestic constituency giving him little flexibility.

Given these restraints, Trump is trying to use creative tactics to win back Abbas. The New York Times reported that Trump called Treasury Secretary Mnuchin during a January meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah. The president requested to speak with the Jordanian monarch, and then asked Abdullah for help in dealing with Abbas – presumably convincing him to return to the negotiating table. Trump even tried using Putin as a mediator to convey a message to the Palestinian President during a February 12 meeting at the Kremlin. After speaking so many times about the “ultimate deal,” Trump knows that a botched U.S. peace process, even before introducing the White House’s initiative, would put his personal prestige on the line, especially after the  president bragged last year that Middle East peace is “not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”

The Trump administration is in unfamiliar territory being the weaker partner. At the same time as the White House has been imploring Abbas to re-engage with the U.S.-led peace talks, senior American officials have launched numerous personal attacks against the PA leadership. Unsurprisingly, U.S. insults directed at Ramallah have not helped win the Palestinians’ trust to allow the Trump administration to serve as an objective mediator between the two parties.

It is true that Abbas remains unpopular domestically with approximately 70 percent of Palestinians wanting the 82-year old leader to resign, according to a December poll. Yet, an even greater number, an astonishing 91 percent of Palestinians opposed Trump’s Jerusalem declaration and 86 percent of Palestinians believe that Trump’s plan will not end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. The U.S. president’s credibility was likely further weakened in Ramallah after he froze U.S. aid to Palestinian refugees. Therefore, Abbas spurning a Trump administration-led peace processes, which a vast majority of Palestinians consider hopelessly biased, actually strengthens his position domestically.

The White House slowly may have realized just how much they alienated Ramallah during their recent overtures toward Netanyahu. Trump questioned whether Israel was committed to peace and said settlements “complicate” peace efforts in a February 10 interview with the Sheldon Adelson-owned Yisrael Hayom Hebrew daily.  It was an odd platform to choose overreaching out directly to the Palestinian public, and such mild gestures are not nearly enough to convince Abbas and the Palestinian masses after so radically tipping the scales in the Israeli right-wing’s favor.

Trump openly taking Netanyahu’s side, through his Jerusalem recognition and refusal to back an independent Palestinian state without Israel’s prior support, has ostracized the White House on the global stage. In a remarkable insult, the United Nations Security Council voted (14-1) assailing the U.S. for the Jerusalem policy shift. Separately, international officials slammed Washington for freezing United States assistance to the UN Palestinian refugee agency. Trump’s clear favoritism toward Israel has provided more ammunition to Abbas worldwide than normally granted to a Palestinian leader following significant U.S. pressure.

Labeling former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “weak” on Twitter, Trump deployed one of his trademark insults to describe his Democratic foe. While Trump personally guaranteed last year that he would bring Middle East peace, the White House remains unable win Abbas’ participation in Trump’s “ultimate deal” initiative, overturning a decades long-system that maintained U.S. dominance in the peace process. It is the sign of a weak leader.

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