Donald Trump will be making history from the moment he takes off from Riyadh to Tel Aviv on Monday — by flying the direct route from the Saudi capital to the Jewish state for the first time.
He’ll make history a second time when he becomes the first serving US president to visit the Western Wall — the holiest place of prayer for the Jewish people.
His Saudi hosts on Saturday asserted their confidence that he can make more abiding and substantive history by brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
The kingdom, said Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at a press conference with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is optimistic that Trump, “with a new approach and determination, can bring a conclusion to this long conflict. He certainly has the vision, and we believe he has the strength and the decisiveness.”
Furthermore, said al-Jubeir, “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands prepared to work with the United States in order to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis and Arabs.”
The personal praise and deference to Trump — the fact that elderly King Salman came to the airport to greet the president, and reached out to shake the hand of the bare-headed First Lady Melania — underlined that, like Mahmoud Abbas at the White House earlier this month, the Saudis have recognized the importance of keeping on the new US leader’s good side, and maximizing the flattery.
It’s a tactic that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doubtless observing with dismay, although not surprise.
Whatever Netanyahu had hoped for — or expected of — the new administration, the fact is that the president has not yet moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, has not moved to scrap the US-led nuclear deal with Iran, and has not given Jerusalem carte blanche on settlement building.
The president has, by contrast, hosted Abbas at the White House and made plans to meet him again this week in Bethlehem. He has showered Abbas with compliments, including by hailing the ongoing US-Palestinian partnership on regional security and counterterrorism — remarks that must have had them tearing out their hair at the PMO.
And now, the president has signed a staggeringly large series of economic deals with Saudi Arabia — worth in excess of $380 billion over the next 10 years, with almost a third of that sum, over $110 billion, comprising arms sales. Just by way of perspective, it’s worth bearing in mind that the endlessly discussed US-Israel memorandum of understanding on US “security assistance” to Israel, finally signed last September with the Obama administration, is worth some $38 billion over the coming decade.
The Trump administration has promised to ensure that Israel maintains its qualitative military advantage in the region. But the arms deals announced Saturday will give the Saudis access to extremely advanced weaponry, in extremely large quantities. And as Tillerson and Jubeir stressed repeatedly, the deals profoundly deepen the relationship between their two countries, and their mutual commitment to each other’s defense.
Israel will be internalizing the sway and leverage in the US that this deepened relationship could give the Saudis
Israel might take some comfort in the pledge expressed by Tillerson to work closely with the Saudis in confronting the pernicious influence of Iran across the region — to curb Tehran’s aggression, its support for terrorism, its intervention in the affairs of other Middle Eastern nations.
But as Trump hailed the “tremendous” deals, providing “hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs,” Israel will also be internalizing the sway and leverage in the US that this deepened relationship could give the Saudis.
It is gratifying to hear a Saudi foreign minister speaking openly and easily about Israel, and promising readiness to help toward peace, just as it has been gratifying in the past year or two to see Saudi leaders and officials occasionally sharing forums with leading Israelis and even, in the case of one Saudi general, visiting Israel, meeting officials and Knesset members, and sending out pictures of his encounters.
But the Saudis have a very clear view on the parameters of Israeli-Palestinian peace and Israeli-Arab peace. It’s known as the Arab Peace Initiative or the Saudi Peace Initiative. Unveiled in 2002, it was reaffirmed just weeks ago at an Arab League summit, where Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt was on hand meeting various Arab leaders.
And, to date, the Netanyahu government has rejected it as a framework for negotiations, citing, among other concerns, opposition to the notion of an Israeli return to some version of the pre-1967 lines, and to the Initiative’s wording on the issue of Palestinian refugees.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is acutely aware of the dangers of saying no to President Trump. To a president who has already told him to hold back a little on the settlements. To a president who says he believes he can “honestly, truly” cut an Israeli-Palestinian deal “quicker than anyone ever imagined.”
It is highly unlikely that Netanyahu has lately become an adherent of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative. The prime minister will, therefore, be watching anxiously right now, as the heavily US-invested Saudis give Trump the most royal of welcomes. And he will be wondering how successful they will be in persuading the president to rely on their peace initiative as the basis for the deal with which Trump intends to make Israeli-Palestinian history.