The time when Palestinian leaders had the last word on Arab states ties with Israel is over. The new reality in the Middle East is that Iran, not Israel, is perceived as an existential threat to the Sunni-Arab states, particularly to those in the Gulf. In addition to security considerations, Arab states are also interested in trade relations with Israel, especially in Israeli technology. That said, we can also be certain that the same Arab states will continue to pay lip-service to the Palestinian cause, principally, to appease their domestic crowds in the name of Islamic solidarity and Arab unity.
In recent times, we have witnessed a number of Arab League nations meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a surprise meeting earlier this month, Sudan’s new leader, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, chairman of Sudan’s ruling Sovereign council, met with Netanyahu in Entebbe, Uganda. Sudan, a member of the Arab League, has joined a number of other Arab League nations in meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister. Netanyahu made a state visit to Oman last October where he met with the sultan, Qaboos bin Said. Also last year, Netanyahu broke bread with top officials of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates at a Warsaw, Poland summit. In March, 2019, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to Israel-bound passenger flights over the kingdom, breaking a 70-year-ban.
At the unveiling of the Trump administration “Deal of the Century” late last month at the White House, the ambassadors from Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE were present. Although not all Arab League or Muslim states responded positively, several Arab states did so. Morocco’s Foreign Ministry stated that “it appreciates the U.S. Mideast peace plan.” Egypt characterized the peace deal as “an effort to advance the stability and security of the Middle East.”
Saudi Arabia’s government-controlled mouthpiece Al Arabiya, in its editorial, urged the Palestinian leaders to enter into direct negotiations with Israel. In a twitter statement posted by the Saudis, it said that the Kingdom “Appreciates the efforts of President Trump’s administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan between the Palestinians and the Israeli sides, and encourage the start of direct peace negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides, under the auspices of the U.S.”
The Palestinian leadership asked the Arab ministers invited to the conference by the Trump administration, not to attend the February, 2019 Warsaw Conference on the Middle East. The response was best captured by the Jerusalem Post headline (February 13, 2019), “Arab Message from Warsaw: No PA Veto power over Israel contact.” The ostensible reason for the Warsaw conference was to plan how to thwart Iranian designs in the Middle East. The conference was attended by the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen. While Iran’s machinations in the Middle East region topped the agenda, other issues including the situation in Syria, Yemen, Israel, and the Palestinians came up.
Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary-General Saeb Erekat responded with anger, charging that the Warsaw conference “is an attempt at bypassing the Arab Peace Initiative [from 2002] and destroying the Palestinian national project.” Yet, despite Palestinian objections, the Sunni-Arab states showed up. They did so because they have decided to put their own self-interests over solidarity with the Palestinians, who rejected the Trump peace plan long before it was unveiled. Moreover, they recognize Israel’s utility to them in terms of security and economics. There is also the recognition among these Arab states that working with Israel would help them be on the good side of President Donald Trump. The Gulf states in particular are cognizant that Israel would be of great help to them against Iran.
President Trump is changing the failed paradigm in dealing with the Palestinian issue. The Trump peace plan, unlike previous administrations peace plans, puts the onus on the Palestinians to make concessions in exchange for bettering the lives of the Palestinian people. The “peace deal of the century” does something else, it takes away the Palestinian leaders most important political asset – their veto power.
The United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU) states, and previous U.S. administrations have given the Palestinian cause moral and political gravitas. The Palestinian leaders have, however, wasted it on unattainable demands, such as the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. They have received billions of dollars from the international community, especially from the EU and the U.S., intending to help them build their state institutions. But, instead of using these funds to foster a democratic society and provide economic opportunities for their people, they used these funds for terror, incitement and violence against Israel and Israelis, endemic rejection of all peace offers, and widespread corruption.
The Palestinians, by virtue of their position regionally and internationally, were given veto powers by the international community on such issues as the future of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) territories, and the solution to instability and violence in the Middle East. In the Western world, ignorance of the true political dynamics in the region led to the perception that solving the “Palestinian problem” will end the instability and violence in the Middle East. Some among the Israeli political elites were prisoners of the notion that the solution to the “territories” has to involve the cooperation of the reluctant Palestinian leadership. Hence, the tireless efforts by prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert came to naught.
The International community efforts to bring peace to the Middle East, focused for decades on the illusion that solving the “Palestinian problem” was the key to peace in the region. It thus became an enduring obsession that lasted until recent times. It required appeasing the Palestinian leaders in spite of their persistent rejectionism. The more the Palestinians demurred at negotiating with Israel, the more extensive the political and financial support was given to Ramallah. Many in the international community expressed “understanding,” if not outright sympathy for Palestinian terror against Israel. Some also participated in the delegitimization of Israel, while Jerusalem was combatting Palestinian terrorism.
The Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century” rejected the previous notions. It is no longer dependent on Palestinian consent or cooperation. It opens the way for unilateral Israeli moves with U.S. support, to facilitate Israel’s security needs. It includes Israeli control of the air space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, a demilitarized Palestinian state, and the application of Israeli law to the Jordan Valley.
In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece (February 11, 2020), Nathan Sharansky and Gill Troy wrote: “To complete his ‘deal of the century,’ President Trump forces Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shake hands with…nobody.” This is a reference to the famous unpleasant shake of hands between PM Itzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, that President Clinton forced on Itzhak Rabin in the 1993 White House ceremony. Sharansky and Troy continued by quoting Netanyahu saying to Trump, “For years we tried making peace with the Palestinians, but only you thought of this genius move: making peace without the Palestinians.”