US says Arab states won’t change tack on Palestine

Bitter dispute with Israel over Iran deal won’t stop Washington from pushing peace process forward, senior official says

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Then Saudi Crown Prince and now King 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)
Then Saudi Crown Prince and now King 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)

WASHINGTON — Despite much talk of a possible rapprochement with Israel spurred by mutual opposition to the Iran deal, the Sunni Arab Gulf states have not changed their position on the Palestinian question and are unlikely to urge Ramallah to make concessions, a senior official in the Obama administration said.

Briefing Israeli reporters in Washington last week, the official welcomed increased collaboration between Jerusalem and the Gulf States over their common enemy Iran, but effectively denied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that such cooperation could lead to a breakthrough in the peace process.

“We have yet to see the Gulf States alter their approach toward the Palestinian issue,” the official said in response to a question from The Times of Israel. The only tangible improvement in Israeli-Arab relations is that the current Egyptian government has been coordinating security issues “more closely” with Jerusalem than the previous one, the official said. “That has changed in the last year or so. But we have yet to see that change materialize in the Gulf.”

In recent months, Netanyahu has repeatedly argued that the converging security interests of Israel and the moderate Sunni Arab states have led to an unprecedented, if unofficial, alliance. “Our best allies actually these days are some of our Arab neighbors, because they know we face a common threat,” he said at a conference in March.

At last year’s UN General Assembly, Netanyahu argued that the “partnership between us can also help facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” As opposed to the commonly accepted view — articulated, for example, in the Arab Peace Initiative — which says that the Arab states will normalize relations with Israel as soon as the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved, Netanyahu said that “it may work the other way around, namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

Washington embraces the idea of an Arab-Israeli détente, but the administration doesn’t believe it could replace direct bilateral talks with the Palestinians.

“We would welcome the notion that there are some overlapping interests between some of our Sunni Arab partners and Israel. Anything that would promote greater recognition of Israel and potential cooperation in the Arab world in our view is a good thing,” the senior official told the Israel Diplomatic Correspondents Association.

It’s in the Arabs’ interest to do more to support peace, and the US has urged them to do so over the years, the official said. “That would be a way for them to make clear that if their primary security concern is Iran, resolving some of the other issues in the region, including the Palestinian issue, should be in their interest. We would like to see them more invested in moving the process forward.”

However, there is no substitute for direct negotiations with Ramallah, a second senior official present at the briefing said. “Invariably, the Arabs will come to the fact that there is a plan on the table,” the official added, referring to the Arab Peace Initiative.

The plan, first announced in 2002 and since reissued every year by the Arab League, calls for an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and a “just and agreed solution” to the refugee issue in return for the establishment for Israel of full diplomatic relations with 57 Arab and Muslim states.

“The discussions with the Arabs simply cannot be a substitute for those discussions with the Palestinians directly, because there are some Palestinian bottom lines and it’s difficult to imagine the Arab states impacting them in a meaningful way,” the official said.

The signing of a nuclear agreement with Iran, and the administration’s bitter disagreement with the Israeli government over it, does not mean that the US will disengage from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, several senior US officials vowed.

“We’ve always felt that there’s an urgency associated with the Palestinian issue that couldn’t just be set aside while the Iran issue is being addressed, given the nature of demographics in the West Bank and Gaza, given the nature of the current impasse between the parties,” one official said. “The urgency is plain given the situation on the ground: the changing nature of demographics, the changing nature of settlements, and the changing nature of Palestinian governance. There is ample reason for a sense of urgency around this.”

Washington is currently reviewing its policy vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has yet to announce its next steps. Officials refuse to rule out backing a UN Security Council resolution setting parameters for a two-state solution, but vow not to do anything that would jeopardize Israel’s security.

“External issues,” such as possible Palestinian moves at the UN or the International Criminal Court, the situation in Gaza or internal changes in the Palestinian leadership, will leave Washington no choice but to deal with the issue, the official said.

“I don’t think there is any scenario whereby we wouldn’t be addressing the Israeli- Palestinian issue over the course of the next year,” the official said. “We are looking at the range of approaches we can take. We are very realistic about the prospects of achieving a complete settlement in this administration, given where the parties are. Having said that, the president feels very strongly that we can’t be seen to be walking away from this issue and we need to keep doing what we can to keep the Palestinian issue as a focus of US policy.”

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