Palestinians are convinced that President Donald Trump is in cahoots with Israel. It’s not impossible to understand how they’ve reached that conclusion. His decision last Monday to shutter the PLO’s Washington office follows a string of 180-degree policy turns that have aligned the Trump Administration tightly with the positions of the Israeli government. The rollout of any American blueprint for peace is, according to the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, “not imminent.”
But most Palestinians are also fed up with the dysfunction and decay that have been the hallmark of Palestinian governance under President Mahmoud Abbas. Hovering around a 60 percent disapproval rating, Abbas is, ironically, as unpopular among Palestinians as Trump is among his fellow Americans.
That’s not the only thing he shares with America’s commander-in-chief. Abbas has more in common with Trump than he might realize. In fact, he’s been calling signals from Trump’s playbook since long before The Donald ever considered making a run for the presidency. (Could Trump actually be copying Abbas?)
Let’s start with their penchant for conspiracy theories—a forgivable ailment perhaps, if it weren’t so self-destructive. Take Trump’s conviction that the European Union was formed to “take advantage of the United States.” The 112 pages of the Maastricht treaty which birthed the European Union don’t mention the United States even once. That hasn’t prevented the Trump Administration from launching a tariff war against America’s largest trading partner. Trump presumably expected Europe to cower, but its retaliation bodes ill for U.S. consumers and global commerce.
So goes Abbas. Trump envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt visited the Middle East over the summer to discuss the U.S. peace blueprint. Despite indications that Trump’s “ultimate plan” is destined to implode—neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority is overly enthusiastic about its reputed provisions—Abbas still couldn’t overcome his paranoid inner demons, worsening his predicament.
Pouting over the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Abbas extended his boycott of U.S. officials and refused even to meet the White House pair. Saeb Erekat, his lead negotiator, is accusing the Administration of conspiring to topple the government in the West Bank. All that remains is for Kushner to fulfill his promise and “air the plan publicly.” Palestinians will cry foul, but they will have played into the hands of those who will fault them for not engaging constructively when they had the chance.
Abbas has renewed efforts to bring Hamas into a unity coalition, with his spokesmen asserting that Palestinian reconciliation must precede any ceasefire with Israel. Never mind that “success” would spell the end of all hopes for peace—the United States, Israel and the European Union have all blacklisted the terrorist group—but Abbas simply denies the reality of repeated failures to collaborate with Hamas. Like Trump, who confessed that he will just invent “some kind of excuse” if his overture to Pyongyang falls flat, Abbas accuses everyone save himself of indiscretion.
But then Trump and Abbas also share an appetite for fake history. In June, while taking potshots at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump reprimanded Canada for burning down the White House during the War of 1812. That would have been over half a century before Canada’s confederation.
Cut from the same creative cloth as Trump, Abbas announced back in January that Israel is “a colonial enterprise that has nothing to do with Jewishness.” By his telling, “the Jews were used as a tool under the concept of the promised land—call it whatever you want. Everything has been made up.” Tell that to the legions of foreign dignitaries lining up to insert prayers in the cracks of the Western Wall.
Most egregiously, the two are notorious purveyors of provocative speech. In July, the PLO, whose executive committee Abbas chairs, released a report alleging that Israeli political figures are guilty of using inflammatory rhetoric. Their crime: Speaking of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and of the Jewish People for the past 3,000 years. But how can that possibly qualify as incitement—especially when Abbas claims a similar pedigree himself?
What does instigate hatred and violence, however, is suggesting that Israeli rabbis are calling to poison Palestinian water—something which Abbas has proclaimed repeatedly. Or how about when he told the Palestinian National Council that the Holocaust befell the Jews because of their “social behaviors” such as money-lending? True incitement is when an official of Hamas—Abbas’ coveted partners—says that Trump gave Jerusalem to “the descendants of pigs and apes” when he recognized the city as Israel’s capital. Trump targets like Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Psycho Joe Scarborough and intermittent presidential chum Little Rocket Man Kim Jong-un can surely commiserate.
In 1998, Israel, the Palestinians and the United States established a trilateral commission to monitor and combat hate speech. It never made much progress. Critics charged that the issue was a distraction conceived to avoid any need for making painful political compromises, but I beg to differ. Civility is a fundamental enabler of international relations.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just like partisan battles in Washington, involves issues of considerable substance, but attitudes certainly do matter. And if Israel does hold most of the cards right now, why should Palestinian leaders want to make their situation even more hopeless?
Abbas’s health is deteriorating and the search for his successor is now shifting into higher gear. I would offer one piece of advice to the next Palestinian President: If you aspire to leave a better legacy than your predecessor, don’t imitate him—or Trump.