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Trump set for first meeting with Palestinian president

© AFP/File / by Sarah Benhaida | Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas hopes US President Trump can pressure Israel into concessions he believes are necessary to salvage a two-state solution to one of the world's oldest conflicts

RAMALLAH (PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES) (AFP) - 

US President Donald Trump meets Mahmud Abbas Wednesday for their first face-to-face talks, with the Palestinian leader hoping the billionaire businessman's unpredictable approach can inject life into long-stalled peace efforts.

Abbas makes the trip to Washington while politically unpopular back home, but hoping Trump can pressure Israel into concessions he believes are necessary to salvage a two-state solution to one of the world's oldest conflicts.

Palestinian officials have seen their cause overshadowed by global concerns such as the Syrian war and Islamic State group jihadists, and want Trump's White House to bring it back to the forefront.

"Palestinians are hoping that Trump's unpredictability might play in their favour," one Jerusalem-based European official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"They are going to be very disappointed. They can't be sure of anything."

Examples were seen early on, with Trump backing away from the US commitment to the two-state solution when he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February.

He said he would support a single state if it led to peace, delighting Israeli right-wingers who want to see their country annex most of the occupied West Bank.

Trump also vowed to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem, a prospect that alarmed Palestinians but which has been put on the back burner for now.

At the same time, he urged Israel to hold back on settlement building in the West Bank, a longstanding concern of Palestinians and much of the world.

One of Trump's top advisers, Jason Greenblatt, held wide-ranging talks with both Israelis and Palestinians during a visit in March.

Abbas and Trump spoke by phone on March 11.

- Pressuring Hamas? -

Trump's unpredictability is far from Abbas's only concern, with polls suggesting most Palestinians want the 82-year-old to resign.

Abbas's term was meant to expire in 2009, but he has remained in office with no elections held.

The bitter split between Abbas's Fatah party, based in the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, has also taken a new turn in recent days.

Some analysts say it seems Abbas is seeking to increase pressure on Hamas in the impoverished strip, but he risks being blamed for worsening conditions in the enclave of two million people.

Israeli officials say the Palestinian Authority dominated by Abbas's Fatah has begun refusing to pay Israel for electricity it supplies to Gaza.

Rights activists say exacerbating an already severe power shortage in the strip under an Israeli blockade for 10 years could be catastrophic.

The reported move comes after the PA announced earlier in April it would temporarily cut stipends to its Gaza civil servants.

The PA said it was forced into cutbacks by falling foreign aid, but others alleged it could be aimed at stirring discontent in Gaza and destabilising the Hamas administration there.

- Regional support -

With those difficulties in mind, Abbas may face demands from Trump that could be "political suicide" for him to implement, the European official said.

Such demands may include stopping payments to families of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, a policy heavily criticised by Netanyahu as encouraging further violence.

Doing so could further open Abbas to accusations of bending to Israel's will, particularly with one of his rivals in Fatah, Marwan Barghouti, leading a hunger strike involving hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails since April 17.

Barghouti is serving five life sentences over his role in the second Palestinian intifada, but he is popular and polls suggest he could win the Palestinian presidency.

Trump has spoken of reviving the idea of a regional peace initiative, pulling in countries such as Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab nations to have signed peace treaties with Israel.

Both Abbas and Trump have recently met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordanian King Abdullah II.

After meeting Abbas on Saturday, Sisi urged Washington to help restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Jamal Shubaki, Palestinian ambassador to Egypt, said Abbas, Sisi and Abdullah shared the same goal of explaining "to the new American administration their attachment to the Arab peace initiative".

The proposal made in 2002 holds out normalised ties between Arab nations and Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Abbas's visit also comes amid speculation about when Trump will visit Israel.

An Israeli official confirmed that talks on a visit were under way, but no date had been set. Israeli media reports have said it could occur in late May.

by Sarah Benhaida

© 2017 AFP