The Arab summits held every year at the end of March don’t generally produce dramatic headlines. They are dull events, even for the aging and unpopular rulers who participate, some of whom have been known to fall asleep at the discussion table.
This week’s summit in Jordan, by contrast, managed to create, if not headlines, then at least significant trends that might, just might, have dramatic implications for Israel.
The Palestinian issue, to the dismay of certain Israeli leaders, is returning to center stage. After long months in which the grab-bag of right-wing coalition leaders and self-styled experts on “Arab affairs” explained to the Israeli public that the Arab states don’t care about the Palestinians, suddenly those very states, who had indeed been showing little interest of late in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are changing their attitude following the change in government in the US. More than that, they are presenting a united front on the matter. And the bottom line that came out of Amman is: Palestine first.
First resolve this irritating matter of the Palestinians, and afterwards we can talk about the wider regional order: that was the public message from the Arab League summit, and it is also the behind-the-scenes message that those states intend to give to the US government — starting next week, when Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi will be hosted by President Donald Trump at the White House.
The unified Arab-Sunni front is not a trivial phenomenon, especially given the frictions of recent years. Ties between Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been on the rocks, but the Jordanian summit marked a reconciliation between King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Sissi. The two presented Iran as the joint enemy of the Sunni axis, and they were joined by Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Having turned something of a blind eye to Tehran’s support of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, Egypt ended its dispute with Riyadh in one sentence during Sissi’s speech, in which he called for a firm stance against Iranian efforts to dominate the region. In an almost symbolic sign of the changing times, the Lebanese President Michel Aoun, an ally of Lebanese terror group Hezbollah and, to an extent, its sponsor Iran, stumbled as he arrived at one of the discussions and fell flat on his face on the red carpet.
But apart from tackling Iran, Sissi’s goal in Washington next week is to advance negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority reportedly aim to push for an agreement based on the Arab initiative – a two-state solution with land adjustments. Yes, that familiar initiative from 2002, created by the Saudis and the-then heir to the throne, Abdullah. It’s likely that changes and adaptations in the Arab plan will be presented to Trump, but the basis will remain.
If those reports are correct, this marks a significant victory for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who this week celebrated his 82nd birthday. Abbas was being cold-shouldered as recently as six months ago by Cairo, which was backing his internal political opponent Mohammad Dahlan. Now Egypt has reconciled with Abbas, and is showing a clear interest in being involved in future negotiations with Israel on the Palestinian issue.
These shifts in the Arab arena, along with the very public involvement of Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt, who held a series of meetings with Arab leaders on the sidelines of the summit, point clearly to a diplomatic awakening.
For now, the US government is not coming out with any concrete public demands. For now, indeed, it is quietly negotiating with Israel on the issue of settlement construction.
But Greenblatt on Wednesday publicly confirmed Trump’s “personal interest” in achieving a deal, and declared that such an accord would “reverberate positively throughout the region and the world.”
This kind of rhetoric is rather worrying to at least some in Israel’s governing coalition. Trump just might, however surprisingly, be the one to present a comprehensive plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — a new “road map,” perhaps, or a “Trump framework.”
And that might put the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an unexpectedly awkward position.