Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner together with Middle East Special Envoy Jason Greenbelt are conducting talks this week in effort to advance the peace process.
Following meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, the two will travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
According to a White House official, ongoing dialogue has been occurring behind-the-scenes since Trump left the region last month.
“President Trump has made it clear that working towards achieving a lasting peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians is a top priority for him. He strongly believes that peace is possible,” the official said
These talks are slated to occur just days after a shooting and stabbing attack in Jerusalem on Friday, June 16th in which three Palestinian assailants armed with guns and knives carried out an attack that left one border Policewoman dead and another four wounded.
The attack, which unfolded near the Damascus Gate in the Old City targeting Israeli police officers, could have been more catastrophic. Bystanders and forensics confirm that the assailants’ homemade Carl Gustav submachine gun jammed as they were attempting to spray a crowd with bullets. All three attackers were shot and killed by nearby responding officers.
In the wake of the attack, Fatah (the political faction of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas) condemned Israel for killing the three Palestinian terrorists. A statement released by the PA reads thus:
… Fatah “condemns the war crime carried out by Israeli occupation forces in Jerusalem against three Palestinian teens,” spokesperson Osama al- Kawasme said in a statement. Fatah added that “the international community’s silence emboldened Israel to further spill the blood of Palestinians.”
An additional source of tension arises as it appears U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may have been misled in his meetings with PA officials in May. Speaking before the U.S. Senate on June 13, Tillerson claimed the Palestinian Authority had agreed to stop the “martyr” payments, which are provided to the families of suicide bombers and remain a major source of anger for Israel.
“They have changed their policy, at least I have been informed they’ve changed their policy,” Secretary Tillerson said to the Senate. “Their intent is to cease the payments to the family members of those who have committed murder or violence against others.”
But within hours of Mr Tillerson’s statement, both Israeli and Palestinian officials said he was wrong.
“This is not true and this statement is an aggression against the Palestinian people,” said Issa Qaraqe, the head of the PA prisoners affairs department. Qadare Fares, the head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, an NGO that works with prisoners’ families and organizes payments, said he was not aware of any changes to the payments policy.
An Israeli official said: “Israel does not know of any change in Palestinian policy, which is to continue to pay the families of terrorists. The Palestinian Authority continues to praise, incite, and encourage terrorism through payments.”
These contradictions could lead to diplomatic problems if Tillerson feels he has been misled by the Palestinians. Secretary Tillerson said on June 13, that both he and President Trump had raised the issue with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, when he visited Washington in May.
The US and UK have both raised objections to the PA’s payment policy for years but it has continued nonetheless. The payments are made regardless of whether ta Palestinian was killed while carrying out a terror attack against Israeli civilians or a if a civilian was killed by Israeli forces.
The families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails also receive payments, with the pay scale depending on how long the person has been imprisoned. Prisoner payments are provided to those who have been convicted of violence but also those Palestinians who have been jailed without charge under Israel’s administrative detention policy.
Israel argues that the payments incentivize violence because a would-be attacker knows that his family will be financially compensated if he is killed or jailed.
Some Palestinian officials argue the opposite: saying that if a family is left destitute and it is more likely that the children will grow up to embrace violence and extremism. Other Palestinians say that violence is a legitimate form of resistance to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories and that the families deserve payment for the attackers’ sacrifices.
Secretary Tillerson suggested that he understood there was some nuance to the payment policy but demanded that payments stop for those who carried out violent acts. “I told [Mr. Abbas] you absolutely must stop making payments to the family members of quote ‘martyrs’. I said it’s one thing to help orphans and children, but when you designate the payment for that act, that has to stop.”
It remains to be seen what the outcome of these latest talks will be. But they will surely have plenty to discuss.