As Trump administration finalizes peace plan, Palestinian ambassador calls US embassy opening in Jerusalem a ‘media stunt’

As the rift between the White House and the Palestinian leadership grinds on, sparked by Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December, the Trump administration is reportedly days away from releasing their peace plan to Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Yet the head of the Palestinian Mission in Washington DC, Ambassador Husam Zomlot has already signaled the peace plan, whenever it will be released, has no chance.

Speaking at his office in the upscale Washington DC neighborhood of Georgetown last month, Zomlot told Mondoweiss the Palestinian negotiators need to see the U.S. commit to an international mechanism to solving the conflict, and support relevant United Nations resolutions, namely the calls for an independent state of Palestine, “And then we are willing to sit and cooperate if these two things materialize.”

Zomlot was careful to argue, that framing the current kerfuffle with the U.S. as the Palestinians are “saying no” to negotiations is a distortion. It is “not about we are not willing to sit and cooperate,” he said, “You know this is really flipping the pyramid up side down all of the time. No, nobody is saying no. Everybody is saying yes all of the time. The question is how do you give your yes?” he said.

“You heard the president,” Zomlot said referencing Mahmoud Abbas’ speech on February 20, 2018 at the United Nations Security Council where he recommitted to negotiations, “yes for a two-state solution—a big yes.”

“Millions of people in waiting for the last 70 years and enough is enough,” Zomlot said.

“Many people say ‘so you Palestinians are saying no,’” Zomlot said, “always journalists start with the ‘no’ with us, that we are the side that says no, when in fact it is the other way around, historically we have been on the table for 26 years, almost non-stop with some stagnation here and there.”

From 1988 on, Zomlot said, the Palestinians have said, “Yes with a capital Y,” to direct talks with Israel, where he contends Israel had to be “pulled from their hair” by the U.S. to agree to peace talks.

The most significant breakthrough on the negotiations front occurred in 1993 in the context of the Oslo Peace Accords, when Israel recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and the PLO recognized the state of Israel in return. It was a first step to realizing an agreement, but left the Palestinians with a government, but no state to govern.

“Israel never, ever, until this moment, until this very moment, Israel never recognized us—right? Then they say the Palestinians say no,” Zomlot said.

Oslo secured another major achievement for the Palestinians. Israel took the PLO off of their list of terrorist organizations. The U.S. vis-a-vis Congress designated PLO as a terrorist organization back in 1987 and while the designation was never officially reversed, every U.S. president has signed a waiver overriding Congress, that is until Trump came into office and he let it expire.

This created a most odd situation for the PLO where Israel maintains ties with the Palestinians, yet the U.S. does not, at least on the level of senior White House officials tasked with solving the conflict.

To this, Zomlot booed, “You want to be more Catholic than the Pope? More royal than the king?”

“You cannot sit with the most strategic partner—that is Israel— and a terrorist organization,” adding, “that asymmetry, that inequality itself does not level the playing field,” Zomlot reflected.

“So yeah, this is an opportunity to really put the bilateral relationship on equal footing and to translate reality practice, real-life, into the laws and policies into the U.S.,” he said.

Palestinian Ambassador and head of the PLO Mission in Washington DC (L) speaks with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R). (Photo: Al Watan Voice)

“Since 1991 we have been America’s partner in peacemaking, America has invested heavily in making the [Palestinian] state from the bottom up, we’re talking billions of dollars,” Zomlot said. 

Zomlot intends to take that energy and change the U.S.’s perception of his government in hopes that legislation will be introduced that remove the PLO’s terrorist designation. His actions, to “correct the bilateral relationship with America and revisit all of these laws that consider us terrorists organizations, that ostracizes us all of the time.”

“The Congress was not engaged over the years as much as we should, from our side. The instructions I have from the president is to make sure that we explain our situation, we explain our story, we explain our logic to all American political representatives and public.”

But Congress is being engaged by the other side.

Last week lawmakers and White House officials attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington DC. The lobby group does not specifically call for the creation Palestinian state and is largely viewed by Palestinians and their advocates as hushing efforts for Palestinian emancipation while at the same time deepening ties between Israel and the U.S. During the conference, Israel’s Prime Minister and his wife had a second visit to the White House since Trump took office. While still in Washington, Netanyahu declared that he wants to see Israel control the West Bank indefinitely, one of the reasons being, the prospect of Palestinian terrorism.

So how will Zomlot and a handful of staff at the DC Mission compete? “It’s a long journey,” he sighed. Outside of the White House, Zomlot maintains communication with members of Congress, and the State Department “at the highest levels.” He meets regularly with Palestinian-American groups, but as far as grassroots campaigns, “their own activities, their own initiatives are up to them,” he said. 

Looking back over the start of the pre-talks with the Trump administration that began in the spring of 2017, Zomlot said the Palestinians’ were taken aback by what seemed to be Trump’s personal dedication. When Abbas raised his opinion that there should be a state based on 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as it’s capital, Trump listened empathetically. And while President Barak Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry were regarded as more sympathetic to the Palestinians than Trump, it was Trump who called for meeting after meeting with the Palestinians. It was Trump who gave Abbas the honor of being the first Palestinian leader to get an invitation for a high profile visit to the White House since Yasser Arafat was called to Washington by Bill Clinton during the last peace process. 

“I can’t remember in recent history that a Palestinian president met an American president four times in a matter of three, four months,” he said. That frequency alone, was enough to raise an eyebrow of quiet excitement.

“In every of those meetings president Trump would reiterate how serious he is and how sincere he is. In every time we met we realized he wants to invest a great deal of capital into resolving this. The one thing we did was to give the benefit of the doubt, and we gave 150 percent of the benefit of the doubt,” Zomlot said.

At this time Zomlot was Abbas’ senior advisor. At 44 he stands as one of the youngest Palestinian officials to rise to the realm of international headlines and his placement in the U.S. all the more emphasizes Abbas’ interest in working with the Trump administration. He got his start in government in 2002 when Arafat asked him to work for the PLO. He quickly rose through the ranks and by 2014, Abbas had personally selected Zomlot to be his advisor.  

“I was instructed by my president to be “positive, engaged, and extend hands and say in public that president Trump provides a serious opportunity, and genuinely we were anticipating a very serious effort at ending this conflict,” he said.

Zomlot praised Trump throughout this period. He said he told “those who support President Trump and those who do not support President Trump, that we believe this is an opportunity. We will engage like never before.”

“This is an opportunity to correct the relationship with the US,” he said.

Despite the harmed relations, the Trump administration is pressing on with a peace plan it intends to reveal to the Palestinians. This much was related by Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley last month who said White House officials are “finalizing” the agreement. Then the New York Times reported Sunday officials say the plan will drop soon, and their article questioned if it will be “dead on arrival”?

Scant details are known about what is in Trump’s “ultimate deal.” From the little the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner who is tasked with overseeing the peace brokering and has a newly downgraded security clearance has shared, the plan will likely involve regional partners Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and include some sort of long-term economic package.

Ahead of the White House’s initial schedule, a consular annex in the Arnona neighborhood of West Jerusalem is being outfitted as the new embassy. The current embassy in Tel Aviv will continue to function as it has the square footage needed to handle a majority of the functions.

What’s most troubling to Zomlot is the date of the embassy opening, scheduled for May 14, 2018, a day that is particularly bitter for Palestinians as it marks the nakba (in Arabic), or the “catastrophe,” referring to the creation of a massive Palestinian refugee population during Israel’s establishment.

For Zomlot, the symbolism is beyond tone deaf.

“The May 14 embassy opening is a ‘media stunt’ for Netanyahu, it is a catastrophe for all the people in all sides, it will be remembered as the day of crossing the Rubicon,” Zomlot said. 

“You’re talking to someone who was born in a refugee camp,” he continued. Zomlot was raised in Gaza and his family originates in from a village called Simsim formerly located in southern Israel.

My family, along with the whole village were forced to leave by the attacking Zionist militias in 1948,” although Zomlot has visited the ruins of the town, the first occasion on a road trip from Gaza with his grandfather and father when he was six. “I remember that vividly when my father took me in the Peugeot 404,” he smiled, “I knocked the gear in reverse.”

The day trip’s highlight was Zomlot’s grandfather locating a fig tree he planted on what was the family’s yard, a challenge when there are no houses or buildings to mark property lines.

“He planted that tree. You cannot imagine the delight,” Zomlot said.

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