May 11, 2018

Trump's peace plan is stalled, but he's bringing Israel and Gulf states closer

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Trump. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the last year, relations between Israel and the Gulf states have grown warmer and deeper.

Why it's happening: Much of it has to do with the alignment in interests over the Iranian threat, but the Trump administration's efforts to promote a Middle East peace deal and get the Sunni states and Israel to work together have also been a factor.

  • President Trump's "peace team" led by senior adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt decided from day one to build close relationships with several Arab leaders, such as Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and Jordan's King Abdullah II, as part of its efforts to promote a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
  • Kushner wanted to use the help of those Arab leaders to encourage Palestinian leadership to be more flexible in peace talks with Israel. It hasn't worked on the Israeli-Palestinian front, but did bear fruit on the Israel-Arab front.
    • Kushner was able to use his relationship with the King of Jordan to help prevent a crisis over the Israeli embassy in Amman from getting out of control in July last year.
    • Kushner's many hours of talks with The Saudi crown prince influenced some of MBS's thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and led to more positive rhetoric about Israel. Two examples are MBS' interview with the Atlantic, where he recognized Israel's right to exist in peace, and his criticism of Palestinian leadership for refusing to negotiate.
  • The White House "Peace team" managed to get Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain to send representatives to the special meeting on the Gaza crisis in Mid-March. The Arab representatives set around the same table with the Israeli general in charge of the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
  • Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday led to another public show of common position between Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. Those four countries were the first to welcome Trump's decision and published statements with very similar language.
  • After the clashes in Syria between Israel and Iran on Wednesday, the foreign minister of Bahrain went on Twitter to publicly back Israel. He tweeted: "As long as Iran has violated the status quo in the region and is exploiting states using its forces and missiles, any country in the region, including Israel, is entitled to defend itself by destroying the sources of danger". The White House was aware of the Bahraini statement and welcomed it.
    • Trump's special envoy Jason Greenblatt tweeted in response: "Under President Trump’s leadership, America’s friends are drawing closer together in the face of Iranian aggression!".

The catch: White House officials, Gulf states officials and Israeli officials all recognize there is a historic opportunity for a breakthrough in relations. But they also recognize the Arabs will have a very hard time moving in that direction without meaningful progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

  • Arab officials say Israel should be the one seizing this opportunity and taking steps towards the Palestinians that will enable the Gulf states to bring relations to the next level.

Where things stand: Trump says one of his top priorities is to get "the ultimate deal" between Israel and the Palestinians, but also between Israel and the wider Arab world. The White House has more or less finished drafting its peace plan, but they don't know when to launch it as the Palestinians are still boycotting the process over Trump's decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

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