When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to annex the Jordan Valley last September if given another term in office, Arab governments allied with the US overwhelmingly joined the Palestinians in slamming the statement.
Saudi Arabia’s royal court called Netanyahu’s statement “a very dangerous escalation at the expense of the Palestinian people” and added that it represents “a clear violation of the United Nations Charter and international norms.”
The Bahraini Foreign Ministry called the prime minister’s remark “a barefaced and unacceptable violation of the Palestinian people’s rights.” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said it aimed at “blowing up the foundations of the peace process.”
And the Qatari Foreign Ministry said it constituted “an extension of the occupation’s policy of violating international laws and employing despicable methods to displace the brotherly Palestinian people.”
But on Tuesday and Wednesday, after the US administration unveiled its plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which envisions placing the Jordan Valley under Israeli sovereignty, most of the same Arab governments issued statements that struck a notably different tone compared to those they put out following Netanyahu’s remark in September.
While their statements did not express full-fledged support for the plan, they also did not reject it out of hand or state direct criticisms of it. In contrast, the Palestinians blasted the US initiative, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas calling it “the slap of the century” and vowing the Palestinian people “will send it to the dustbins of history.”
The Saudi Foreign Ministry said Riyadh “reiterates its support for all efforts aimed at reaching a just and comprehensive resolution to the Palestinian cause” and “appreciates the efforts of President [Donald] Trump’s administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan.” It also said the Gulf kingdom “encourages the start of direct peace negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides, under the auspices of the United States, and to resolve disagreements with aspects to the plan through negotiations.”
The Bahraini Foreign Ministry said Manama “affirms…its support for all efforts aimed at reaching a just and comprehensive solution to the conflict, which leads to the restoration of all the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”
The United Arab Emirates seemingly issued the most complimentary statement, calling the plan “a serious initiative” and stating that it “offers an important starting point for a return to negotiations within a US-led international framework.”
Meanwhile, Qatar and Jordan issued more strongly worded statements, but they also refrained from specifically rebuking the plan.
Qatar said it welcomes “all efforts aiming towards a longstanding and just peace” and “appreciates the endeavors of President Trump and the current US administration to find solutions for the Palestinian-Israel conflict.” The Gulf emirate also said “peace cannot be sustainable if Palestinians rights in their sovereign state within the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem, and the right of return are not preserved.”
Safadi, the Jordanian foreign minister, expressed support for the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital and warned against “the dangerous consequences of unilateral Israeli measures, such as annexation of Palestinian lands, building and expansion of illegal Israeli…and encroachments on holy sites in Jerusalem.”
On Tuesday, some Arab countries, including Bahrain, the UAE and Oman, also dispatched envoys to the unveiling of the plan at the White House.
Little to gain from criticism
Eldad Shavit, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank in Tel Aviv, said many of the Arab states chose not to directly criticize the plan because they did not find considerable value in doing so.
“They certainly want to maintain good relations with the US,” Shavit, who was both a high-ranking official in IDF Military Intelligence and the Prime Minister’s Office, said. “They also know that this plan could remain on the shelf and never be implemented. So they do not think there is much for them to gain from explicitly criticizing it now.”
In addition to putting the Jordan Valley under Israeli sovereignty, the plan envisions the creation of a Palestinian state in about 70 percent of the West Bank, a small handful of neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, most of the Gaza Strip and some areas of southern Israel — if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip disarm and other conditions are fulfilled.
It also calls for allowing Israel to annex settlements, granting the Jewish state overriding security control west of the Jordan River and barring Palestinians from entering Israel as refugees.
Shavit, however, noted that he believes several Arab countries would shift their rhetoric about the plan, if Israel uses it to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank.
“I believe that the US gave promises to these countries that Israel would not be taking unilateral steps and that there would be negotiations,” he said. “If that changes and Israel goes for annexation, for example, I think we will see these countries taking a different line.”
Netanyahu originally said on Tuesday that he wanted to bring a proposal to annex parts of the West Bank to a vote this coming Sunday, but Tourism Minister Yariv Levin suggested on Wednesday that would not happen.
Levin said there were still several bureaucratic hurdles to leap, including “bringing the proposal before the attorney general and letting him consider the matter.”
Asked about the prospect of Israel imminently annexing territory in the West Bank, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, said on Wednesday: “The hope is that they’ll wait until after the election, and we’ll work with them to try to come up with something.”
Iran trumps Palestine
Uzi Rabi, the head of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that he thought many of the Arab countries have not explicitly knocked the plan because the US had consulted with them about it.
“They know that they cannot vitriolically come out against a plan that the Americans discussed and developed with them,” he said. “If they did that, they would cause tensions with the Americans and they very much do not want that.”
Since Trump assumed office in 2016, Kushner and other senior American officials have often met Arab officials to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bahrain even hosted the launch of the economic portion of the plan in June.
Rabi also argued that most of the responses of Arab countries in the Persian Gulf indicate that they believe Iran’s regional activities take precedence over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Their reactions clearly show that their first priority in the region is Iran. They do not want to make any move that will antagonize the US and undermine their chances of dealing with Iranian threats,” he said. “They simply do not believe there is great strategic value in investing efforts in the Palestinian issue.”
Arab countries in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, view Iran as a major regional foe and strongly oppose its support for armed groups throughout the Middle East.
Daoud Kuttab, an Amman-based Palestinian analyst who writes for Al-Monitor and runs a local radio station, said he agreed that a large number of the Arab states want to maintain positive relations with the US, but cautioned that it may be too early to fully judge their response to the plan.
“These are very diplomatic responses. They understand the way Trump works and do not want to anger him,” he said. “But I think it is too early to say we have seen their full response. It will be important to see what they say at the Arab League this weekend.”
The Arab League is set to convene with Abbas in attendance to discuss the plan.