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Trump presidency buoys Israeli leader, rattles Palestinians

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was one of the first Arab leaders to congratulate Donald Trump on his election win on Wednesday, but analysts say a Trump presidency may be profoundly negative for Palestinian aspirations while buoying Israel’s confidence.

People dine at a coffee shop as an image of newly elected President Donald Trump is displayed on a monitor in Tel Aviv, Israel. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed confidence that he and Trump can work together to bring U.S.-Israeli relations to “new heights”.

In a statement, Abbas appeared to hold out some hope that Trump, with no clear foreign policy program, may turn a new leaf when it comes to the Middle East.

“Abbas congratulates the U.S. President Donald Trump on his election and hopes just peace can be achieved during his tenure,” said the statement on the official WAFA news agency.

That may be wishful thinking.

During the campaign, Trump won support in Israel with a promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, all but enshrining the ancient city as Israel’s capital.

While that has been promised many times by presidential candidates in the past, Trump is the sort of leader who may well make it happen, and he would likely have full backing from the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress, too.

If it does occur, it would override decades of international diplomacy that holds that the status of Jerusalem is not finalised until a negotiated settlement is reached between Israel and the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as the capital of their state, together with the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu, who has had a rocky relationship with President Barack Obama, issued a statement congratulating Trump and hailed him as a “true friend” of Israel.

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“I am confident that President-elect Trump and I will continue to strengthen the unique alliance between our two countries and bring it to ever greater heights,” Netanyahu said.

He said he looked forward to working with Trump “to advance security, stability and peace in our region”. U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-wing party leader who backs Israeli settlement building and opposes a Palestinian state, made the implications of Trump’s win very clear in a rapidly released statement.

“The era of a Palestinian state is over,” Bennett said.


The national aspirations of the Palestinians are already in difficulty for at least two reasons: animosity and division between Abbas’s Fatah party and the Islamist group Hamas, which has shattered political unity, and the extent of Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is slowly eating away at the land left for a state of Palestine.

Israel has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the 1967 Middle East war. There are now 350,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and 250,000 in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian population of the West Bank is about 2.8 million, while around 300,000 live in East Jerusalem.

Under President Trump, Israeli analysts expect there to be less pressure from the United States to halt settlement building, meaning the settler population will grow unchecked, pushing the faint possibility of a two-state solution - the aim of diplomacy for decades - further out of reach.

“The Palestinian people hold no hope that the change of American president will mean a change in policy towards the Palestinian cause,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “That policy is constant and biased in favor of Israel’s occupation.”

George Jackman, the chairman of the Ramallah-based Institution for Democratic Studies, says it is possible that Trump will surprise as president since his policy ideas, especially in the Middle East, are so unclear.

“We shouldn’t expect that slogans announced by Trump during his electoral campaign will remain unchanged,” he said. “What distinguishes Trump is that no one knows what policies he may embrace because there are no detailed plans.”

That could be both positive and negative. But from the perspective of Palestinian political analysts, it’s negative.

“Trump’s win is an evil prophecy for Palestinian politics,” said Adnan Abu Amer, a political scientist based in Gaza.

“Trump may seek to marginalize the Palestinian-Israeli file and activate other files such as Syria, Iran and Iraq. That is what Israel wants and what the Palestinians fear.”

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said he was surprised by the U.S. election results but counseled a wait-and-see approach.

“Usually we notice major differences between the electoral propaganda and the person who becomes an elected president,” he told Voice of Palestine Radio. “We should listen to the victory speech first and later steps will make things clearer.”

Writing by Luke Baker and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; editing by Giles Elgood