TEL AVIV - When planning began several months ago for United States Vice President Mike Pence to make his first trip to the Middle East, hopes were high because he was supposed to serve as an advocate for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
But little of that optimism remains after President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, a decision that infuriated the Palestinians as never before. In an unprecedented move, they will not welcome Mr Pence who starts his visit this week.
In a speech blatantly hostile to the US, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his opposition to the superpower’s role as mediator. “May your house collapse on your head”, he cursed Trump during a 2 1/2-hour tirade in Ramallah on Sunday evening.
“We will not accept American leadership of a political process involving negotiations”, he said. Mr Trump’s peace plan was not the “deal of the century” but the “slap of the century”, he added and threatened: “We’ll get back at them.”
It is a hollow warning, however.
After 12 years in power, Mr Abbas has few allies and even fewer options. The anger of the 82-year-old leader hardly concealed his helplessness.
He told the Arab states, who allegedly acquiesce to Mr Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, to “go to hell”; demanded an apology from Britain for the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which supported the idea of a “Jewish national home in Palestine”.
Europe, a steadfast supporter of the two-state solution, got its share of Mr Abbas’s wrath too. He blamed it for creating Israel to rid itself of its Jews and to safeguard its interests in the region. “Israel is a colonialist project, which has nothing to do with the Jews,” he said.
He charged that Israel had “killed” the peace process, and accused it of importing “frightening amounts of drugs to destroy our younger generation.”
He also lashed out at Hamas, a bitter political rival, for spurning his invitation to the meeting in Ramallah. Instead of showing Palestinian unity, it became another demonstration of Palestine’s enduring division. Hamas has ruled the Gaza strip since a bloody coup in 2006.
Much of his anger, however, was directed at the US. He furiously rejectedWashington’s request to stop payments to incarcerated Palestinian terrorists. Israel and the US contend that these monthly stipends, which can be higher than the salaries of civil servants, motivate Palestinians to commit terror attacks.
Mr Abbas was also scornful of Mr Trump’s threats to cut off financial aid if he did not commence negotiations with Israel, saying: “Damn your money!”
But he left his future strategy obscure.
The central committee is supposed to formulate new policy initiatives. It recommended rescinding recognition of the State of Israel until it recognises Palestine, stop security coordination and act to increase an international boycott of Israeli products.
But it is questionable whether Mr Abbas will follow this course. He has ignored similar recommendations in the past.
This leaves Palestinians with the old idea of “internationalisation”, which is to apply pressure on Israel on the global stage.
One such option could be to seek an indictment at the International Court of Justice in The Hague against the settlement project in the West Bank, a territory captured by Israel in 1967 and which the Palestinians demand for their future state.
Israel has settled more than 500,000 of its citizens there, a move many Palestinians fear will prevent them from ever reclaiming this territory.
For the people living in the Gaza strip, the constant scheming of their leadership in Ramallah may soon become irrelevant.
They face a humanitarian disaster should Trump carry out his threat of cutting funds for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The aid agency
cares for about five million people, most of whom are descendants of the refugees.
In 2016, Washington contributed US$355 million, one-third of its budget. It now allegedly wants to halve it if Abbas does not accept its peace plan. That would threaten the stability of countries with many recipients of UNRWA aid, such as Lebanon and Jordan.
For Gaza, it could spell a catastrophe.
About 1.3 million of the strip’s 1.9 million residents depend on UNRWA. Its unemployment approaches 50 per cent and 95 per cent of the water is unfit for human consumption as tonnes of untreated sewage flow into the Mediterranean daily.
Without UNRWA’s help, Israeli experts fear the outbreak of epidemics could wreak havoc on Gaza’s neighbours.
For the Israeli leadership, Mr Trump’s approach is viewed as a mixed blessing. For years, it had demanded that UNRWA be dismantled, claiming it serves to perpetuate the refugee problem for political purposes. Now, it fears drastic measures could bring widespread destruction.
The Israeli army warns that Gazans could revolt if diplomatic, political or economic propspects continue to elude them. Their patience is not likely to hold for much longer. Hamas could see itself forced to launch another war against Israel to pre-empt unrest.
Mr Trump’s initiatives would then have brought the region another war instead of peace.