Sunni Arab states and Israel share a declared goal of countering Iran’s growing influence in the region, and the United States has been working on a regional plan to bring those parties together in that aim, which it also shares.
But US President Donald Trump’s decision last week to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel complicates the cooperation between the nascent anti-Iran alliance, experts say.
For the Sunni Arab states, cooperation with Israel is inextricably linked to the perceived success of a peace process between the Jewish state and the Palestinians. If the peace process is moving along, Arab states with populations that are largely sympathetic to the Palestinians can justify their cooperation with Israel and the US. Without it, cooperation becomes more difficult to justify.
That, indeed, seems to also be the opinion of Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who said last week at the Saban Forum that peace with the Palestinians was a necessary aspect to building a broad regional coalition against Iran.
When his father-in-law announced that the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to those in the region it seemed like a serious blow to the peace process — an unprecedented privileging of one side’s position on one of the most sensitive final-status issues.
So far, no Arab or Muslim country has publicly paid heed to the president’s assertion that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city or his stated opposition to changing the status quo at the city’s holy sites.
Instead, countries that enjoy historically close relations with the US and maintain (overt or reported) security ties with Israel — including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — have all denounced Trump’s declaration, saying it undermines the peace process and empowers extremists.
“The Jerusalem decision greatly complicates tensions between the strategic interest of pursuing a relationship with Israel and their interest in terms of domestic politics, in terms of values and in terms of the strategic equilibrium they require in order to live happily,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
In the eyes of the Arab world, Trump’s decision undermined the agreed-upon framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that could provide “the grounds to say, ‘Now we have put ’48 behind us on the basis of all this legitimacy,’” added Ibish, referring to the year when Israel was created and immediately attacked by its Arab neighbors.
He said that the political leaders of Sunni Arab states were “frustrated” with Trump’s decision, because in destabilizing the region it hindered progress on two two closely related objectives.
The first is solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a destabilizing factor on its own, exploited by extremist groups to swell their ranks and justify their actions, he said. The second, confronting Iran, also is also about seeking regional stability.
Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued that Trump’s decision has forced Arab countries to take up anti-Israel and -US positions that they were previously loath to adopt.
“It has cornered all of the Arab countries, both ones that wanted to start building relations with Israel, and also those that are US allies. Both feel cornered. Both feel that they have to take hardline positions now and that their margin to maneuver has been limited,” he said.
He pointed out that Qatari and Iranian media have used the Jerusalem declaration to sling mud at the Saudis for their relations with the US.
In protests in Gaza and in Jordan, crowds chanted anti-Saudi slogans.
Some of the anti-Saudi sentiment stems from media reports that Riyadh has been pressuring the Palestinians to accept an American peace deal that is seen as entirely unacceptable to Ramallah.
“Everyone now needs to sound hardline and everyone is afraid of doing anything that can be used by their regional political opponents,” al-Omari said. “They are paying the price for their close relations with the US — not a big price, but a price.”