A broader Israel-Arab deal — rare opportunity or diversion?
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A broader Israel-Arab deal — rare opportunity or diversion?

Netanyahu and Trump are pushing for regional agreement, but Mideast states won't accept it without Palestinian statehood, experts say

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (bottom left), Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (top left), Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (second from right) and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (right) speak during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss a French peace initiative in the Egyptian capital Cairo, on May 28, 2016. (AFP/Stringer)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (bottom left), Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (top left), Arab League Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi (second from right) and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (right) speak during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss a French peace initiative in the Egyptian capital Cairo, on May 28, 2016. (AFP/Stringer)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have pledged to seize what they believe is an opportunity for an ambitious Israeli-Arab peace deal. The premise is that Sunni Arab countries — pushed closer to Israel and the US by the fear of regional rival Iran and its nuclear ambitions — can play an active role in future negotiations, perhaps nudging the Palestinians toward a deal they might otherwise reject. A rare opening or wishful thinking? Here’s a look.

WHAT DID TRUMP AND NETANYAHU PROPOSE?

At the leaders’ first joint news conference on Wednesday, Netanyahu said some Arab countries see Israel “increasingly as an ally,” suggesting they are driven by concern over Iranian expansionism and the spread of Islamic militancy. “This change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace,” he said in urging Trump to “seize this moment together.”

Trump said he wants to pursue “a much bigger deal” in the Mideast that would include “many, many countries.” He suggested there’s Arab interest, saying, “We have some pretty good cooperation from people who in the past would never, ever have even thought of doing this.”

Neither leader provided specifics, though Trump said both Israelis and Palestinians would have to make concessions. Both men refused to endorse a traditional pillar of US policy — a Palestinian state alongside Israel as the preferred solution to the long-running conflict.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC on February 15, 2017, where both leaders refused to commit to the two-state model as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC on February 15, 2017, where both leaders refused to commit to the two-state model as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

WHAT IS THE OFFICIAL ARAB VIEW?

An Arab peace initiative presented by Saudi Arabia in 2002 offered Israel normalization with dozens of Arab and Muslim countries in exchange for an Israel withdrawal from the lands it captured in 1967 — including the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, where a state of Palestine would be established.

The initiative, which also called for a “just solution” for several million Palestinian refugees and their descendants, was reaffirmed later by the 22-member Arab League. Arab foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo next month, are expected to do so again, according to a draft resolution obtained by The Associated Press.

Israeli governments have balked at such a withdrawal, even if tempered by land swaps with the Palestinians. Israeli lawmaker Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, said Thursday that full withdrawal and the refugee clause were non-starters for Israel, but that other elements, including normalization, were “very positive.” The Saudis have rejected Israeli calls for a revision, saying the plan remains on the table.

SIGNS OF AN ARAB THAW?

Sunni-led Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, share with Israel a deep distrust of Shiite power Iran. They see Iran as a meddlesome and destabilizing force in the region that is intent on asserting its dominance through support for militant groups from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to Yemen and the Gulf itself.

Officially, the Gulf states do not recognize Israel, though the United Arab Emirates has in recent years allowed Israeli citizens entry to participate in sporting events or meetings of the International Renewable Energy Agency. Netanyahu frequently boasts of quiet ties with Arab countries that he refuses to identify.

In a sign of the region’s deepening sectarian divide, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah, taunted Sunni Arab leaders Thursday, saying: “Would someone please reply to Netanyahu? Someone with some honor? Tell him, ‘No, you are a liar, you are still our enemy?'”

WHAT DOES ISRAEL ENVISION?

Netanyahu believes the interests of Sunni Arab countries increasingly align with those of Israel. Netanyahu’s warm ties with Trump, on display Wednesday, could enhance the perception that Israel can help countries in the region gain access to US administration officials.

Israel already has formal relations and close security ties with Egypt and Jordan, in a shared struggle against Islamic militants. It also is believed to be quietly sharing intelligence with some of the Gulf countries.

Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former security adviser, said Thursday that the aim is to take an Israeli-Sunni Arab alliance out of the shadows. “I am not speaking about covertly. That is happening anyhow,” he said.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal and Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's former national security adviser, share a platform at the Washington Institute, May 5, 2016 (Washington Institute screenshot)
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal and Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, share a platform at the Washington Institute, May 5, 2016 (Washington Institute screenshot)

A first step would be more open security coordination, including intelligence sharing with Israel, which he said is “essential” for Sunni Arab countries facing an Iranian threat.

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal quoted several Middle Eastern officials as saying the Trump administration is in talks with Arab allies about such an intelligence-sharing arrangement.

An Israeli-Arab alliance could then help negotiate “something that the Palestinians are not ready to do today,” Amidror said, adding that one challenge would be public opposition to Arab engagement with Israel in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians. That’s why US engagement is important, he said.

Support for Palestinians, while not the rallying issue it once was, remains popular among Gulf citizens.

WHAT ABOUT THE PALESTINIANS?

Palestinian officials believe it is unlikely Arab states will cut a separate deal with Israel. “The Arabs will not accept anything the Palestinians don’t,” said Nasser al-Kidweh, an official in President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.

Analyst Ali Jerbawi said there’s a possibility Abbas will come under more pressure from US-allied countries in the region to accept a lesser deal with Israel at a time when Netanyahu and Trump appear so close.

Since Netanyahu came to power in 2009, he and Abbas have been unable to hold meaningful talks because of vast gaps on basic issues.

Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (right) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) in the Saudi Red Sea resort of Jeddah, on June 18, 2014. (AFP/HO/Saudi Press Agency)
Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (right) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) in the Saudi Red Sea resort of Jeddah, on June 18, 2014. (AFP/HO/Saudi Press Agency)

WHAT DO OTHERS SAY?

Much of the international community remains committed to a two-state solution as the only path forward. On Thursday, the United Nations and the Arab League endorsed the establishment of a Palestinian state in a joint statement. Last month representatives from dozens of countries reiterated the need for a two-state solution.

Mideast analyst Fawaz Gerges said Arab leaders wouldn’t dare strike separate deals with Israel.

“The Arab states have already been dealing with Israel for quite some times. Iran now is a bigger threat than Israel, in the eyes of the Arab street, in the Gulf in particular,” he said. Still, he said, “the Arab position is that the only way forward with Israel is to make peace with the Palestinians, based on the Arab Peace Initiative.”

Israeli suggestions of a closer alliance with Arab countries, ahead of any deal with the Palestinians, are a “pipe dream,” he said.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press.

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