Does the United States seek relations with Hamas in Gaza and to undermine the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leadership in the West Bank? Palestinians officials and insiders asked me this question repeatedly during a recent visit to Ramallah. At first, the question seems strange. How could well-informed insiders come to wonder if the United States prefers to deal with an Islamist terrorist organization to a leadership that avows non-violence and actively pursues security cooperation with Israel on a daily basis?
Palestinians read a series of statements, interviews, and op-eds by President Trump’s core advisors as offering Hamas a path towards a deal that could reward the Gaza based leadership with international recognition and massive financial dividends. They see the United States reaching out directly and publicly to Hamas, not working with or through the Ramallah-based leadership to coordinate an approach to Gaza. And they fear that a June interview that President Trump’s son-in-law gave to a local Palestinian newspaper reflects a White House appeal for Palestinians to oust their own leadership.
That the Palestinian leadership would feel so disconnected, and have such fundamental questions about the Administration’s intentions, is all the more remarkable when contrasted with their extreme optimism following President Trump’s visit to Bethlehem and President Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to the White House just fifteen months ago.
The Palestinian difficulty in effectively reading American efforts right now is emblematic of the phenomenon highlighted and analyzed by Robert Jervis in his seminal work, Perception and Misperception in International Politics. That countries and government officials so commonly and regularly misunderstand one another is still often under-appreciated in the daily discourse about international developments. Yet these misunderstandings are a core element in the interchange between the United States and the Middle East.
We often assume that the abundant access to information in a globalized world leads to greater transparency and understanding across borders. But data and understanding are two very separate things. While there is an abundance of raw data, spewed out in increased volumes via increasingly sophisticated technologies and social media, the result is actually a diminished degree of genuine communication and understanding. The resulting failures are cognitive, not informational.
In my own experience navigating the terrain between and amongst Middle Easterners and Americans, I never cease to be struck at how parties who are convinced they understand each other, frequently really don’t. The tendency to assume the worst is commonplace. And the indispensible job of intermediaries is often to spot and identify areas where one party says one thing and the other hears another.
Historically, the costs of misreading Middle East realities have been tragic. More wars have transpired due to faulty readings of adversaries’ actions and plans and unintended escalation than by actual design or deliberate intention. Most recently, the last three wars in Gaza in the last decade and the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war are just a few recent examples of deadly conflicts that neither side sought but nonetheless ensued. Today, Palestinians and Israelis both sense that the next round of fighting between them is only a question of time.
Better intelligence is one important element in minimizing the dangers of misreading and misperception. But the most important antidote to international misunderstanding and the prevention of unintended violence is diplomacy. This seems obvious, and yet its current absence is glaring. That the United States and the PLO are communicating exclusively through public recriminations only hardens convictions and exacerbates misunderstanding. If the Palestinians in Ramallah and American officials trying conduct high-level international politics are to make progress in any way, they must resume a serious and candid dialogue with one another, not lob ad hominem attacks from afar that only makes effective communication more difficult.
The United States and the Palestinians have not had any official contact since last December, when the PLO cut off contact with the Administration following the U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Palestinians should return their ambassador to Washington immediately to resume private conversations with the Trump Administration. Recalling the envoy to Ramallah for consultations registered a diplomatic message. Keeping him back at home serves no useful purpose. In the meantime, the United States should fill the currently vacant post of Consul General in Jerusalem to make possible on-the-ground contact with the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership.
What is the United States policy towards the Palestinians right now? Is the American priority to release their peace plan, prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, eliminate UNRWA, advance Palestinian reconciliation, or reach a modus vivendi with Hamas? PLO officials should sit down with their American counterparts and ask them.