News analysis

Trump's Mid-East policy fans flames of hostility

A humanitarian disaster looms if US leader makes good on his threat to cut relief aid

When planning began several months ago for US Vice-President Mike Pence to make his first trip to the Middle East, hopes were high as he was to serve as an advocate for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Little of that optimism remains after President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital last month, a decision that infuriated the Palestinians as never before.

In an unprecedented move, they will not welcome Mr Pence on his visit this week.

In a speech openly hostile to the United States, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his opposition to the superpower's role as mediator.

"May your house collapse on your head," the Palestinian leader cursed the US President in a 2½-hour tirade at a meeting of the Palestinian central committee in Ramallah on Sunday evening.

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. His anger hardly concealed his helplessness.

He told the Arab states, which allegedly acquiesced to Mr Trump's recognition of Jerusalem, to "go to hell"; and demanded an apology from Britain for the 1917 Balfour Declaration that backed the idea of a "Jewish national home in Palestine".

He charged that Israel had "killed" the peace process, and accused it of importing "frightening amounts of drugs to destroy our younger generation".

He lashed out at Hamas, a bitter political rival, for spurning his invitation to the meeting of senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah. It became yet another demonstration of Palestine's division. Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since a bloody coup in 2006.

Mr Abbas rejected the US request to stop payments to incarcerated Palestinian terrorists - Israel and the US contend that these monthly stipends motivate Palestinians to commit terror attacks. He was also scornful of Mr Trump's threats to cut off financial aid if he did not start negotiations with Israel, saying "Damn your money!"

But he left his future strategy obscure. The central committee, which formulates policy initiatives, recommended rescinding recognition of the State of Israel until it recognises Palestine, stopping security coordination and action to increase a world 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 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 Israel captured in 1967 and which the Palestinians demand for their future state. Israel has settled more than 500,000 of its citizens there, which many Palestinians fear will prevent them from ever claiming this territory.

For Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, a humanitarian disaster looms should Mr Trump carry out his threat to cut funds for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which cares for about five million people.

Without UNRWA's help, Israeli experts believe the outbreak of epidemics could wreak havoc on Gaza's neighbours.

As for the Israeli leadership, it fears drastic measures could bring widespread destruction.

The Israeli army has warned that Gazans could revolt if diplomatic, political or economic prospects continue to elude them. Hamas could be forced to launch a war against Israel to pre-empt unrest.

Mr Trump's initiatives would then have brought the region another war instead of peace.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2018, with the headline 'Trump's Mid-East policy fans flames of hostility'. Print Edition | Subscribe