Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas (L) and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert hold a briefing on President Donald Trump's Mideast plan on February 11, 2020 in New York. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)

Abbas, Olmert Meet in New York, Both Rejecting Trump Plan

One figure fighting to stay relevant, other already seen as long irrelevant

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert after Abbas gave a speech at the UN Security Council condemning US President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan.

Abbas is trying to gain international support as he fights back. One way to push back against Trump’s proposal is finding an Israeli politician who will publicly criticize the deal and back him at the same time. When Trump finally unveiled his long-awaited Mideast plan on January 28, an enthusiastic Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stood gleefully by his side. Three Arab ambassadors attended the event and the lukewarm regional and international rejection of the US proposal is forcing the Palestinian leadership to scramble to find anyone to stand by it.

Ziad Abu Zayyad, a former Palestinian official, told The Media Line said that Abbas wanted to prove to the world that he was ready for peace and was not the problem.

“I think he wanted to show that in spite of everything there is another Israeli partner out there if Netanyahu is not a partner.”

The two leaders sitting side by side held a press conference on the sidelines of a Security Council meeting didn’t shy away from harshly criticizing Netanyahu, both making it clear that they reject the US administration plan. Abbas and Olmert told journalists that they are committed to restarting peace talks where they left off over a decade ago.

Olmert agreed: “I think that there is a partner.” He called Abbas “the only partner in the Palestinian community that represents the Palestinian people and that has manifested that he is prepared to negotiate.”

Olmert, now 74 years old, was jailed in 2016 after being convicted of bribery and obstruction of justice for crimes he committed while mayor of Jerusalem and a trade minister. He was the first former Israeli head of government to be jailed. He has been out of politics since his release in 2017.

“It’s the symbolism of the act. And the symbol is that the idea is there,” Abu Zayyad argued, “It’s not about Ehud Olmert as a person but about the fact that there could be an Israeli partner other than Netanyahu and it’s not a lost case and a lost hope.”

Olmert became prime minister in 2006 but resigned three years later when police recommended a series of charges against him.

Former Israeli Knesset (parliament] speaker Avraham Burg told The Media Line the two leaders don’t have to be taken seriously as long as they are seen “together.” As far as whether this meeting between the two can change anything, Burg said that was not the goal.

“You can ask this about everything. But it gives a lot of moral support to those who oppose the Trump no-deal of the century; it’s another political solidarity action.”

Burg says these are “critical” times and it’s a battle between two groups.

“The partition lines are between those who want peace … and who either find excuses or try to undermine the peace opportunity. They can be American president, an Israeli prime minister, they can be settlers, they can Hamas. They can be whoever. There’s an anti-peace coalition, and Olmert and Abbas belong on the same side, the peace side.”

Former Israeli justice minister and one of the architects of the Oslo Agreement, Dr. Yossi Beilin, told The Media Line that the criticism that followed the meeting was much ado about nothing.

“I read nothing out of it. What’s the big deal? Ehud Olmert is a former prime minister, a former convict who developed a good relationship with President Abbas and they met.” But Beilin says the meeting serves Abbas more: “For Abbas it important to show that there are also Israelis and not only Arabs who support the Palestinian view on the Trump plan.”

Abbas said he was “fully ready to resume negotiations where we left it with you, Mr. Olmert, under the umbrella of the international Quartet [comprising the UN, US, EU and Russia], and not on the basis of the plan of annexation and legalizing settlements and destroying the two-state solution.”

During his speech to the Security Council, he reiterated his position on the US, saying, “We will not accept the US as the sole mediator.”

Abu Zayyad explained Abbas’ position on the US, saying that the Palestinians face an uphill battle: “The Palestinians are not [only] confronting Israel abut also the United States. In this confrontation, there’s no symmetry at all. The US is a superpower, it’s the leader of the free world, and it has influence on many countries. The US pressured other countries to not vote for the resolution.”

Many Palestinians chastised Abbas for the meeting, among them Abdul Sattar Kassem, a former political science professor at An-Najah University in the West Bank and a harsh critic of Abbas. Kassem, who once ran for the presidency, told The Media Line that Abbas has legitimacy issues.

“First of all, he is not the president of the Palestinian people. We must be clear, he [Abbas] is a usurper of power because the term of his mandate ended in 2009. We are in 2020 and he still in power.”

However, Kassem says Abbas is eager to sit with any Israeli leader, including Netanyahu.

“Abbas did not cut off negotiations with Israel, and the greatest evidence is that the Palestinian security services are still meeting and coordinating with the Israeli security services. So, when he met Olmert, it was as if to say, ‘I miss you [to the Israelis] and I am ready to sit with you.’”

Kassem says Abbas needs all the help he can get to keep his grip on power.

“President Abbas’ words and actions are an insult to the Palestinian people. People lost faith in him and that’s why he is trying to start something. Anything.”

Abu Zayyad disagrees.

“Well, Abbas is not in trouble. He is still a strong leader and enjoys support from major Palestinian institutions such as the PLO, Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority. It’s true that many of his people are disappointed and frustrated and not enthusiastic about his approach and policy of nonviolence and being committed blindly to negotiations and to the political process, but he is still the one who can deliver.”

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