Arab Normalization with Israel Frames Trump Peace Plan

Since rising to prominence as a candidate and then as president, Donald J. Trump has argued he is uniquely suited to make peace in the Middle East. While acknowledging how tough it would be, he believed he could make the “ultimate deal.” But the question of Palestine is one that seasoned diplomats and statesmen have been unable to resolve, and even those who have dedicated years in office to working on a peace plan have failed even to put forward a successful proposal. Most recently, President Barack Obama’s efforts, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, faltered in 2014 before an American framework agreement was proposed. The gaps between the sides, we were told, were simply too wide to bridge.

Contours of a Trump Peace Plan

That might all be changing now as reports are surfacing of an American initiative, a Trump Peace Plan. The president indicated from his earliest months in office that he wanted to make Middle East peace a priority and repeated as much in his first major foreign trip in May, which was to the Middle East. By all accounts, his envoys on this file have been active, holding regular meetings with the different sides.

Trump has also indicated from the outset that his approach would differ from previous ones and could include a much wider range of players. In his February press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, coming as early as the president’s third week in office, Trump was already talking about “a much bigger deal, a much more important deal” that would ”take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory.”

The notion of linking a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue to a regional transformation is not new. Indeed, the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which has been around since 2002, would pave the way toward peace and normalization between Israel and all Arab and Muslim countries. But getting to that point required that Israel met certain conditions, specifically, agreeing to a peace accord in line with international law. To the Israelis, however, this was a nonstarter. As recently as 2014, the API had been the foundation of a regional approach to peacemaking; John Kerry, in his efforts at restarting talks, worked to get Arab ministers to agree to include the notion of land swaps into the API.

That, however, was still not enough for the Israelis to accept the framework. Instead, they preferred the normalization of ties coming before or alongside a process toward peace. The Arab states have largely viewed this as a fool’s errand, with leaders across the region understanding the risks of openly normalizing relations with Israel before a just peace for Palestinians. There was great strategic value in what has come to be known as the “outside-in” approach for the Israelis, and using common concerns over Iran made this objective seem attainable. While the Arab Peace Initiative unified 57 Arab and Muslims states behind the PLO’s demands, the outside-in approach could lead to splitting this bloc by getting Sunni Gulf states and their clients in the region to back normalization ahead of a peace agreement. This, in turn, would weaken support of the PLO’s position, squeezing them further and, as the Israelis surely hoped, forcing them to accept even less than 22 percent of historic Palestine, with land swaps.

Despite the fact that the American war in Iraq led to greater Iranian influence in the region, raising alarm for Israel and Saudi Arabia alike, Saudi-Israeli contacts have remained quiet and behind closed doors largely for fear of Arab public reaction if such cooperation were public. Saudi kings have proven unwilling to publicly betray the sequence behind the API, but all that might be changing now as the Israelis and other proponents of the outside-in approach may have found a new and willing partner in Saudi Arabia: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who, by many accounts, is the country’s de facto ruler today.

A November to Remember in Saudi Arabia

In a kingdom defined by octogenarian potentates for decades, things rarely move fast. But perhaps emphasizing the degree of change the rise of Mohammed bin Salman represents, developments in the last several weeks in Saudi Arabia have sent shockwaves throughout the region at light speed, and these have not been changes for the better.

On November 4, a number of ministers and princes were rounded up in a purge framed by the government as a crackdown on corruption. These included some of the most high-profile individuals in Saudi Arabia including several billionaires and media executives. Shortly thereafter, another prince died in a helicopter crash, raising the specter of conspiracy. Perhaps more than any moment since his elevation to crown prince earlier this year, this purge of princes who had benefited tremendously throughout the reigns of previous Saudi kings showed that something radically different was taking place in Saudi Arabia.

Just days before the mass arrests took place, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and envoy tasked with Middle East peace, was on an unannounced trip to Riyadh where he met with Mohammed bin Salman. Kushner has developed a strong relationship with MbS, reportedly brokered through the United Arab Emirates and its ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba (who was recently promoted to the rank of minister in the UAE, an announcement that also came on November 4).

Shortly after the mass arrests, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a long-time recipient of Saudi support, was summoned unexpectedly to Riyadh. There, he promptly announced his resignation from his position as prime minister, citing threats on his life and the growing influence of Iran in Lebanese politics through Hezbollah. Hariri, it was widely suspected, was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will, and the US State Department announced that a US official had met with Hariri where he was “being held.” It was only after the personal intervention of the president of France that Hariri was allegedly permitted to leave the kingdom—first to France and then to Lebanon.

This apparently overt Saudi interference in Lebanese politics represented a shift away from the isolation of Qatar as its key focal point in the attempt to marginalize Hezbollah. Indeed, even though Saudi Arabia seemed to spend most of the summer and fall focused on the isolation of Qatar, the issue is now being called, in the words of the Saudi foreign minister, “a very small matter1—from a top priority to a minor matter in the span of months. It is precisely this schizophrenic foreign policy that should have people worried about Saudi Arabia’s leadership under Mohammed bin Salman, whose limited resume includes a military debacle in Yemen that has the Arab world’s poorest nation on the verge of famine, a crisis with Qatar that threatens to split the GCC, and now an attempt to reorient Lebanon’s politics. Remarkably, the treatment of Hariri by Saudi Arabia and his apparent forced resignation has turned him into the Lebanese victim of foreign interference, making him more popular at home. Saudi Arabia might have inadvertently accomplished the impossible: getting a wide cross section of Lebanese to rally behind Hariri.

It was also during Hariri’s bizarre stay in Riyadh that Mahmoud Abbas was summoned to Saudi Arabia for an unexpected visit while he was on a trip to Cairo. There, Mohammed bin Salman presumably told Abbas that the Americans will be putting forward a position on the peace process, one that the Saudis wanted the Palestinians to accept. While Abbas was free to go, it was unclear what, if anything, he may have committed to the Saudi crown prince.

Gathering Clouds

All of this suggests that the young prince in Saudi Arabia is intent on changing the political dynamics of the region and he has the support of allies in the UAE as well as a young Washington-based counterpart in Kushner with a direct line to an American president who knows next to nothing about the region. MbS is also being cheered on by the Israelis.

Indeed, as part of an effort to break the taboo of normalization with Israel, the Israelis have not been shy to discuss their ties with Gulf Arab states at every opportunity. Most recently, Israeli Military Chief Gadi Eisenkot gave an unprecedented interview to a Saudi-owned online newspaper, Elaph. Although the media outlet is banned in Saudi Arabia, the owner is considered to be close to King Salman.

Bringing the relationship out into the open, if that is what the hasty prince is dead set on doing, will come at a steep price. Arab publics are divided on a number of issues, but if there is one thing that unites them it is sympathy for Palestine and rejection of Israel for as long as Palestinian rights are denied. In a recent poll of Arab public opinion by Arab Center Washington DC, a full 88 percent of respondents considered the Palestinian issue of high importance, with 74 percent saying it is “very important” to them personally. In other words, if Mohammed bin Salman wants to realign the Arab Middle East into an alliance with Israel against Iran, he will need widespread Arab and Palestinian cover.

This is why pressure will now be put on Abbas in multiple directions. The Saudis made their message clear to Abbas when he was in Riyadh. Most recently, the Trump Administration is moving in the direction of closing the PLO’s official representation in Washington, DC. The General Delegation of the PLO to the United States has often been under the threat of closure from either Congress or the executive branch when this approach was deemed a suitable lever of pressure. In the past, the office has stayed open by presidential waiver despite congressional threats to close it. But now it seems that the executive branch, which has the discretion to interpret the law with some leeway, has chosen not to do so—a warning and a reminder to Abbas of the costs that would come with saying no to Trump.

All of this comes as another deadline is quickly approaching. December 1st is the next deadline by which the president must determine whether or not to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a commitment Trump, like many others before him, has made on the campaign trail. But if Trump wants to make it clear to Abbas that he should get on board now or forget about a deal, making the move by this deadline, or threatening it, could be part of the White House’s thinking.

The prospect of an embassy move may also be one of the reasons for the impending visit of King Abdullah of Jordan, who is due in Washington at the end of November. While no meeting with the president is on the schedule as of yet, Abdullah will have an audience with Vice President Mike Pence. He did the same during a hurried visit in January ahead of Trump’s inauguration, when it was believed that the president would be making the embassy move one of his first proclamations. The king, according to Senator Bob Corker, played a key role in persuading Trump to hold off. His recently announced trip to Washington, ahead of this upcoming deadline, might suggest that the threat to move the embassy is once again being taken a little more seriously in the region.

The Ultimate Debacle

Mohammed bin Salman is playing a dangerous game that might simply result in him getting played instead. The Israelis have demonstrated that they are not interested in terms for a just peace, wanting instead—in a best-case scenario—to hold onto Jerusalem and to have a permanent presence in the West Bank. One thing the regime in Iran and its proxies understand is that Palestine is still the pulse of publics in the region. If the Saudis moved toward normalization with Israel without a just peace for Palestinians, that would not marginalize Iran or its allies in the region but only make them more popular—while making the Saudis look like traitors to the Arab cause.

While the stakes are high for the Saudis, the same cannot be said for the Israelis. At best, they can split the Arabs and further squeeze the Palestinians into submission. At worst, if they fail trying, they still leave the Arabs in disarray and arguing amongst themselves while losing nothing but time, a commodity the Israelis very much seek to waste while continuing to entrench their occupation.

To pull off this dangerous gambit, Mohammed bin Salman is relying on the goodwill of Netanyahu, the honesty of Donald Trump, and the experience of Jared Kushner. Unlike his debacles in Yemen, Qatar, and now Lebanon, a betrayal of Palestine would come with much steeper costs for Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman—and for the region as a whole.

1 Source in Arabic.