As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was being fired on Tuesday, his central assumptions about the Palestinian conflict with Israel, which are shared by the entire Washington foreign policy establishment, literally blew up in Gaza.
On Tuesday morning, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s convoy was attacked by a roadside bomb during an official visit in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Hamdallah was in Gaza to inaugurate a wastewater treatment facility sponsored by the World Bank. The facility was approved 14 years ago, but infighting between Hamas, which runs Gaza, and Fatah, the PLO ruling faction which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA), blocked its operation time after time.
The shuttered water treatment facility in northern Gaza has long been a monument to the Palestinian leadership’s incompetence and indifference to the plight of the people it is supposed to be serving. As the plant gathered dust, Gaza plunged deeper and deeper into a water crisis.
As the Times of Israel reported, Gaza has two water problems: insufficient ground water, and massive pollution of the existing supply due to the absence of sufficient sewage treatment facilities.
Untreated sewage is dumped directly into the Mediterranean Sea, and then seeps back into Gaza’s groundwater.
Gaza’s polluted acquifiers only produce a quarter of its water needs, and due to insufficient water treatment facilities, 97 percent of Gaza’s natural water sources are unsafe for human consumption.
Hamdallah’s visit to Hamas-controlled Gaza was supposed to show that the Fatah-Hamas unity deal Egypt brokered between the two terror groups last year was finally enabling them to solve Gaza’s humanitarian needs.
And then Hamdallah’s convoy was bombed, and the whole charade of Palestinian governing competence and responsibility was put to rest.
Later in the day, the White House held a Middle East summit that demonstrated Tillerson’s basic assumptions have the problems of the Middle East precisely backwards.
Under the leadership of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, along with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s senior negotiator, Israeli officials sat in the White House for the first time with Arab officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar. Representatives from Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel enjoys open diplomatic relations, were also in attendance. Canadian and European officials participated as well.
Although they were invited, the Palestinians chose to boycott the conference. Their boycott was telling. The PA claimed it was boycotting the conference in retaliation for America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and President Trump’s plan to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Israel’s 70th Independence Day in May.
But anger over Jerusalem doesn’t justify the snub. The purpose of the summit wasn’t to reach “the ultimate deal.” The summit was called to to formulate the means to contend with the humanitarian crises emanating from Hamas-controlled Gaza. The Palestinians boycotted a summit whose sole purpose was to help them.
As Palestinian commentator Bassam Tawil noted, the PA’s boycott while appalling, was unsurprising.
The White House summit was a threat to both rival Palestinian factions. It showed that the Trump administration, which both Fatah and Hamas hate passionately, cares more about the Palestinians than they do.
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is entirely the product of Hamas and Fatah actions. In an op-ed in the Washington Post last week, Greenblatt laid the blame on Hamas. “Hamas’s utter failure to fulfill any of the most basic functions of governance has brought Gaza to the brink of collapse, which has necessitated the response of the international community.”
Fatah, Tawil noted, is just as responsible. The Fatah-controlled PA has used the Palestinians of Gaza as a pawn in its power struggle against Hamas. Rather than work to decontaminate Gaza’s water supply and provide for the basic needs of the population, for the past year the PA has imposed economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip.
Ostensibly imposed to induce the population of Gaza to rise up against Hamas, they have simply served to increase the misery of the residents of Gaza. Hamas’s power remains unchallenged as Qatar, Turkey, and Iran shower the terror group with cash and arms.
As Tawil noted, Hamas and Fatah are willing to fight one another until the last Palestinian in Gaza.
The conference showed that the attack on Hamdallah’s convoy was not a freak episode. The bombing was emblematic of the Fatah-Hamas leadership’s obsession with their own power, to the detriment of the people they claim to represent.
The events in Gaza and the White House on Tuesday tell us two important things.
First, they reveal that the primary obstacle to both peace and regional stability in the Middle East is the Palestinian leadership – both from Fatah and Hamas.
Not only did the PA refuse to participate in a summit dedicated solely to helping the Palestinians, but also the very day the summit took place, PA-controlled Voice of Palestine Radio reported that the PA intends to file a complaint against President Trump at the International Criminal Court. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, the PA insists, “violated all international laws and resolutions.”
The report also said the PA intends to sue Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman for “crimes against the Palestinian people.”
Tuesday’s second lesson is that while the PA is the primary obstacle to peace and regional stability, it is easily surmountable.
Tuesday’s conference was a diplomatic triumph for the Trump administration. For the first time, official representatives of five Arab states that have no diplomatic relations with Israel sat publically in the White House with Israeli officials. They were brought together due to their common concern for the Palestinians in Gaza, and for the instability that the plight of the Palestinians in Hamas-controlled Gaza might encourage.
Although it is still unknown whether anything discussed at the conference will turn into concrete improvements on the ground, the summit itself was a concrete achievement. It showed that the Arabs are willing publicly to bypass the Palestinians to work with Israel. The fact that the conference was devoted to helping the Palestinians served to transform the PA from the critical partner in any peace deal to an irritating irrelevance.
And that brings us to Tillerson, and the foreign policy establishment whose positions he channeled.
During his 14 months in office, Tillerson insisted on maintaining the establishment’s view that the Fatah-controlled PA is the be-all-and-end-all of Middle East peace efforts. The view that there can be no Arab-Israeli peace without the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) compelled successive U.S. administrations to continue to embrace it despite its support for terrorism, and despite its refusal to accept or even respond to any offer of peace by either Israel or the U.S.
The belief that there can be no peace without Fatah convinced successive American administrations to pour billions of dollars in aid money down the black hole of PA treasury accounts. Since the Israeli-PLO peace process began in 1993, the Palestinians have received more international aid per capita than any nation on earth has received in world history. And all they produced are an impoverished, sewage-filled terror state in Gaza, and a jihadist hub in Judea and Samaria that would explode in violence if Israel did not control security.
The view that the U.S. needs the PLO and its PA to achieve peace gave the Palestinian leadership an effective veto over every U.S. policy towards Israel and towards the peace process.
Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy to Jerusalem was the first time any American leader since Bill Clinton had dared to reject the Palestinian veto on US Middle East policy.
Tillerson supported maintaining the PA’s veto. As a result, he all but openly opposed Trump’s decision.
So too, last June, in a bid to protect U.S. funding to the PA — despite the fact that fully 7 percent of its donor-funded budget is used to pay salaries to terrorists in Israeli prisons and their families — Tillerson falsely told the Senate Foreign Relations committee that the PA had agreed to end the payments. After the Palestinians themselves denied his statement, he only partially walked it back. The next day, he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the U.S. was in “active discussions” with the Palestinians regarding halting the payments.
In other words, Tillerson is so committed to the view that there can be no peace without the PA, that he willingly misled U.S. lawmakers.
Trump administration officials keep insisting that they are almost ready to present their peace plan for the Palestinians and Israel. But whatever the plan may entail, the steps the White House has already taken – Tuesday’s summit, Trump’s move on Jerusalem, and his determination to sign the Taylor Force Act to end U.S. support for the PA if it maintains its payments to terrorists – have already advanced the cause of peace more than any American peace proposal ever has and likely ever will.
Those moves removed the principle blockage to all peace deals – namely, the Palestinian leadership from Fatah and Hamas alike. By bypassing the PA, the White House has focused its efforts on expanding the already burgeoning bilateral ties between Israel and the Arab states. It has encouraged the expansion of cooperation between these regional actors. That cooperation is the key to diminishing Iranian power in the region; defeating Sunni jihadists from the Muslim Brotherhood and its spinoffs; and to improving the lives and prospects for peace of Palestinians, Israelis and all the nations of the region.
Tillerson opposed all of these actions. Like the foreign policy establishment he represented, Tillerson refused to abandon the false belief that nothing can be done without PLO approval. By removing him from office, President Trump took yet another step towards advancing prospects for peace in the Middle East.