Husam Zomlot is surprisingly optimistic about the Palestinians’ prospects under President Donald Trump.
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Husam Zomlot, a senior adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was ensconced on a couch in the lobby of the swank Grand Park hotel in Ramallah one recent afternoon amid a hectic schedule of meetings. There was a lot that needed to get done before he flew out to take up his new position as the Palestinian ambassador in Washington starting April 1.
Despite a nagging cold and, as he put it, “the high stress of relocation,” Zomlot was optimistic about his new posting. President Donald Trump’s talk about striking the “ultimate deal” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was encouraging, as was his recent phone call with Abbas. After an initial period of disconnect between the Trump team and the Palestinian Authority, recent weeks have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity, with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Trump’s personal peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, visiting Ramallah. Abbas himself is set to visit the White House in the coming month. “All indications are that President Trump is serious and keen regarding starting a political process, and so are we,” Zomlot told me.
Yet Zomlot’s appointment, initially announced last October—before the U.S. election results were known, he stresses— comes at a delicate moment in the life of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the future prospects for peace. The last serious attempt at solving the conflict—former Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy—ended in acrimony nearly three years ago. The Obama administration’s eleventh-hour emphasis on Israeli settlement construction at the United Nations Security Council was met with scorn by most Israeli officials, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barely concealing his delight to see the end of Obama’s presidency. The current Israeli government is arguably the most right-wing in the country’s history; the aged Abbas, 82, rules the Palestinian Authority via presidential decree, elections last took place over a decade ago, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip—two parts of what should be the future Palestinian state— remain politically divided.
Enter Zomlot, who despite these inauspicious circumstances is well aware of the influence the U.S. can still exert on the lives of Israelis and Palestinians. “[President Abbas] cares about our standing in America and our relationship with America and I think he might want to send a close associate, a ‘strong horse’ if you will,” Zomlot said by way of explanation as to how he was chosen for the job. “He quickened the process because timing is of the essence and it’s now that you need an ambassador there, to lend help and be a resource in terms of the executive branch, the Congress, and in terms of the policy world, media and civil society.”
Zomlot, 43, has big plans for his new position. British-educated and fluent in English, suave and ambitious—adjectives unfailingly used by those who have met him, even critics—Zomlot has risen rapidly through the ranks, becoming a fixture not only in Abbas’ office at the Muqata presidential compound in Ramallah but in Western foreign policy circles as well. He does not shy away from sweeping pronouncements but is almost always “on message” (the message usually being Abbas’); perhaps due to his academic training he makes thoughtful, concrete points in full paragraphs while deploying lists of synonyms, one after the other in quick succession, for emphasis. U.S. public opinion is still tilted heavily against the Palestinians, but Zomlot claims, with some reason, that the youth of America aren’t as reflexively pro-Israel as previous generations, an opening he will seek to exploit through his own powers of persuasion. “How this conflict has been depicted and portrayed in America is wrong, inaccurate, and misinformed. One of my main missions is to make it accurate,” he said. “We will have to redefine the discourse on this whole thing.”
Zomlot’s path to this moment, pondering an American charm offensive at the behest of the Palestinian president, began far away from the elegant lobby of a Ramallah five-star hotel.
Born in the Shabura refugee camp in the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, Zomlot used a combination of academic prowess and student politics to make his initial way in the world. He left Gaza for undergraduate studies at Birzeit University, just north of Jerusalem in the West Bank, becoming a Fatah party representative on campus just as the first intifada was ending and the halcyon days of the Oslo Accords were beginning. A stint as an economic adviser to the United Nations envoy to the Middle East peace process came next, a role he says was a natural given his upbringing and education in a refugee camp supported by the U.N. “I grew up with the blue U.N. flag flying over my head, and I saw the four-by-four SUVs, and I thought this was our flag and our army,” Zomlot said with a laugh. “A little part of me wanted to be an officer in this army.”
Graduate studies in London came after, first at the London School of Economics on a British government scholarship and then a doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (the title of his thesis? “Building a State Under Occupation”). It was during this period that he was elected to be a Fatah delegate to the General Union of Palestine Students, an official organ of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the political umbrella for the Palestinian national movement. It was in a way natural, then, that after completing his Ph.D., Zomlot was hired by the PLO mission in London, where he eventually rose—with a two-year interruption as a visiting scholar at Harvard—to be chargé d’affaires.
“I was able to experience all of the Palestinian national mosaic,” Zomlot reflected. “From the ‘inside’—Gaza, the refugee camp, Birzeit—to the ‘outside’—diaspora politics and the PLO.” Zomlot was eventually recruited in 2010 by Abbas and then-Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to return to the “inside,” to the West Bank, first in Fatah’s International Affairs Department and then directly in the president’s office as a special international envoy and, subsequently, his current role as strategic adviser on domestic and foreign affairs.
Zomlot repeatedly stressed this proximity to Abbas, underlining the point by saying that his title as strategic adviser, along with his office in the Muqata, will remain in place even while he’s in Washington. Indeed, the best indication for Zomlot’s growing profile came last fall, when at Abbas’ behest (and likely no small amount of Abbas’ support) he was elected to Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, the movement’s legislative body, with the sixth-highest vote total.
“Working for the president the last couple of years, and being very close to him, allows me to understand his logic and strategy and to have a direct channel to him, and to be trusted by him is a crucial thing in Washington,” Zomlot said. As with all things Palestinian, the Israeli comparison was not long in coming, and he mentioned the man known as “Bibi’s brain”— Israel’s powerful ambassador to Washington. “Remember, Ron Dermer is a very close friend of Netanyahu and almost every ambassador in power there has a direct link [back to the Israeli prime minister].”
His optimism aside, the scale of the challenge facing him in Washington is not lost on Zomlot. There is, of course, the discrepancy in size and operations relative to the Israeli presence, with the Palestinian Embassy not even officially an embassy but simply the PLO Delegation Mission to the U.S. and a staff of approximately 12 people. Moreover, as Zomlot put it, there are the “stereotypes, and the difficulty in the Congress.” He’s well aware that support for Israel’s side of the argument is almost a given for most lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “It’s the other way around for the Palestinians … it’s political suicide to be pro-Palestinian if you’re a politician.”
In this, Zomlot isn’t wrong. “The Palestinian Authority is still very unpopular on the Hill,” one well-connected Middle East policy expert in Washington told me. Every so often Congress raises the idea of pulling funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the long-standing (and oft-maligned) body tasked with supporting Palestinian refugees — and not coincidentally the agency Zomlot grew up under in Gaza. Incitement to violence in Palestinian schools and mosques is an issue repeatedly emphasized by both the Israeli government and its allies in Washington. More immediately, Congress is negotiating a bill that would defund the Palestinian Authority if it continued paying salaries to imprisoned Palestinian terrorists or the families of dead terrorists. How would Zomlot tackle this controversial issue?
“Credibly. Legitimately. Frankly,” he answered immediately with another flurry of synonyms—if not exactly any real detail. “I’m not there to either be stubborn—like on TV, only talk and not listen—but nor to just sound like I want to solve every concern that comes my way. … I’ll be very frank and tell it like it is: why we have any mechanism we [do] have, what does it serve, and how does it hurt if we change it. And how can we make sure that some of the legitimate concerns are met but without hurting [our] legitimate aspirations and concerns and needs.”
Congress perhaps aside, there are other more fertile areas of opportunity available to Zomlot. He is already a well-known presence in the Washington policy community, traveling to the U.S. several times a year for meetings at think tanks (“name them, I’ve been there,” he says) and to give speeches at universities and conferences—including left-leaning Jewish ones like J Street and Haaretz. From his perch in Ramallah, he is already a darling of the international press corps. Strictly in terms of visibility, Zomlot’s presence in Washington will likely be an upgrade for the Palestinians over the existing situation, wherein their official standing verges on nonexistent. As one Washington policy insider with long experience on Capitol Hill told me, “I couldn’t even say who the [current] Palestinian ambassador is. I’ve never heard of him and never met him, if that tells you anything about his profile around town.”
Public relations are one thing, but there remains the small matter of what the Trump administration actually has in store for both the Israelis and Palestinians.
In his White House news conference with Netanyahu in February, Trump stated, almost offhand, that he was “looking at two-state and one-state [solutions to the conflict], and I like the one that both parties like.” Nevertheless, the administration has not yet jettisoned the long-standing U.S. policy of a two-state solution to the conflict, a position Zomlot, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority consistently endorse (still officially Israel’s policy, too, though one which Jerusalem seems less keen on emphasizing of late). “All the other options are dumb and bleak,” Zomlot stated flatly. “They will only lead to confrontation, bloodshed and hardship on both sides.”
Zomlot is clear in his objectives. By trying to “redefine the discourse” in Washington around the conflict, the Palestinians are hoping to shift U.S. policy more in their favor. “What we’ve heard from Trump many times is that he’s going for a win-win situation,” Zomlot said. “This requires a different American intervention [from the past]. This requires America to be the equalizer.”
No easy task, and in truth, much will depend on the Palestinians themselves and their own policy choices. “[Zomlot] might be able to smooth the edges and make progress rhetorically, but it’s all contextual for him. It’s all about what Abbas says and does,” the Capitol Hill veteran explained. “If the Palestinian Authority keeps [messing] up, Zomlot will be a lame duck.”
For now, though, Zomlot is hopeful that a new wind is blowing in Washington, and that far from leaving the two parties to their own devices, Trump will play an active role. “I have a feeling President Trump wants it [a peace deal] more than Netanyahu. Way more than Netanyahu,” Zomlot said. A strong U.S. hand, he added, was a requirement given the “imbalances of power” between Israel and the Palestinians. “Do I have to give you a hundred examples of putting the wolf with the lamb in one room and expecting the lamb to come out in one piece?”
Husam Zomlot is no lamb. But there will still be many wolves waiting for him in Washington.
*Neri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture, an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a research associate of the Rubin Center at the IDC Herzliya.
*This article appeared in Politico Magazine, March 31, 2017