With a new leader in the White House bent on disrupting the status quo, could it also be time for a fresh approach to Middle East peace?
The United States last week encouraged a “regional” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, backing a proposal for the Jewish state to unite with Sunni Arab powers against Shia Iran, their common foe.
The first meeting at the White House between President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took place on Wednesday, with the proceedings dominated by the U.S. leader backing away from longstanding American policy of calling for a “two-state” solution.
Trump’s aides contributed to the confusion by stating that Washington remained committed to the two-state solution that remains a staple of Mideast diplomacy, but added that the administration was also open to alternative solutions.
Netanyahu was more specific in proposing a regional alliance to help attain peace in the Middle East—a proposal that Trump called “a terrific thing” during their joint news conference on Wednesday. “We think the larger issue today is how do we create the broader conditions for broad peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab countries,” Netanyahu said on Thursday on MSNBC.
“That’s something that may have a new opportunity because of the fact that many of the Arab countries now see Israel not as their enemy but as their ally in confronting the large threat of Iran and [the Islamic State group]—that is, the twin Islamist forces that threaten all of us. That is bringing us closer together and may also help pave avenues for peace.”
Trump affirmed that the United States would work “very, very diligently” on a “great peace deal”—with his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, expected to lead the American effort.
The U.S. president said Netanyahu’s proposal for a regional alliance was something that “hasn’t been discussed before,” noting it would take in “many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory.” More specifically, Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, lawyer David Friedman, has pushed for cooperation between Israel and Sunni Arab nations in opposing Shia Iran.
“The Gulf states, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Israelis are all united, perhaps inadvertently so, but they’re all united in a common concern about Iran. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism,” Friedman said during his Senate confirmation hearing, during which he was grilled on his rightwing views.
U.S. experts said the alignment of interests between Israel and Sunni Arab countries against the Iranian regime should be supported by the Trump administration, which has already broken from the policies of predecessor Barack Obama who had signed the landmark deal giving Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear ambitions. “Trump has the potential to pull off a major diplomatic coup between Israel and the Gulf states in countering Iran’s threat,” Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told AFP.
So sensitive is the issue that Israeli authorities rarely—if ever—specifically name Arab countries when speaking publicly on the subject, with the exception of Egypt and Jordan, which have peace deals with Israel and maintain diplomatic relations.
Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar do not have diplomatic relations with Israel—although that does not prevent them from sharing informal links.
Retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki met Israel’s then-foreign ministry director general Dore Gold in Jerusalem last July. The pair shared a stage a year earlier at a Washington think tank. At the time, they spoke of the peace process, stalled since 2014, and pledged to reinvigorate the Arab Peace Initiative. Also known as the “Saudi initiative,” the 2002 plan called for normalization of relations between Israel and Arab states in exchange for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
The initiative was revived in July 2013 by then-U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, prior to his mediating Israeli-Palestinian talks nine months later. But now the Trump administration has an opportunity to push for the proposed U.S.-Israeli-Sunni Arab alliance, said Robert Satloff, executive director of conservative think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Israel’s real strategic need from Washington goes far beyond the bilateral relationship. What Israel—along with other longstanding U.S. allies in the region—really needs is a reassertion of American leadership after a period of perceived indifference by the Obama administration,” he said.
Israeli Minister Ayoob Kara, in a tweet, welcomed “the expected regional peace summit of Arab leaders in Washington… This is the new Trump-Netanyahu Middle East.”