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Momentum and mixed signals: a snapshot of the Arab-Israeli peace process

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured here addressing the 2017 AIPAC policy conference via satellite, said the common dangers faced by Israel and its Arab neighbors present a “rare opportunity” to build a more peaceful future in the Middle East. Credit: AIPAC.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured here addressing the 2017 AIPAC policy conference via satellite, said the common dangers faced by Israel and its Arab neighbors present a “rare opportunity” to build a more peaceful future in the Middle East. Credit: AIPAC.

While regional conditions create momentum for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal, Palestinian and Arab leaders are sending Israel mixed signals.

The common dangers faced by Israel and its Arab neighbors present a “rare opportunity” to build a more peaceful and secure future in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the AIPAC lobby’s recent policy conference via satellite.

Israel’s covert communication with Sunni Gulf states like Saudi Arabia has been well-documented since the emergence and subsequent finalization of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in July 2015. In addition to confronting the Shi’a axis of Iran and its proxies—including the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon and Syria, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen—the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors face the Islamic State terror group’s continued threat. Besides its conquests in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State wreaks havoc near Israel in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

At an AIPAC conference breakout session, Lori Plotkin Boghardt—a fellow specializing in Gulf politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a former Mideast analyst for the U.S. intelligence community—called unofficial Israeli-Saudi ties “a bit of a silver lining” amid the tumult across the region. While she explained that the Saudis still say they “don’t have a relationship with Israel,” defense and intelligence relationships exist at the upper echelons of the nations’ governments.

Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S.

Despite aligning Israeli-Arab interests, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the proverbial elephant in the room, as an agreement on that front is widely viewed as a necessary element of comprehensive regional peace.

Official Israel-Palestinian peace talks have not taken place since the Obama administration-brokered negotiations of 2013-14, but the Trump White House appears ready to jump back into a peace process that has confounded political leaders and their envoys for decades.

Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s international negotiations representative, held a series of meetings in March with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Following the Palestinian leader’s meeting with Greenblatt, Abbas’s office said he believes “that under President Trump’s leadership a historic peace deal is possible, and that it will enhance security throughout the region.”

Yet at this week’s Arab League Summit in Jordan, Abbas told the Jordanian daily newspaper Al Ghad that there are “no new peace plans or initiatives.”

Arab states are also sending mixed signals. On one hand, the Arab League Summit’s closing statement vowed that participating nations would “continue to work to relaunch serious Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.” On the other hand, Arab countries—including Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan—plan to challenge Israeli sovereignty in all of Jerusalem at an upcoming UNESCO meeting in Paris, The Jerusalem Post reported. The move would mark the first time Arab states have contested Israeli sovereignty in western Jerusalem rather than only in eastern Jerusalem, the portion Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Settlements and the two-state solution

Member of Knesset Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) is leading “Converging Interests,” an Arab-Israeli peace plan containing security, economic, socioeconomic, international and military dimensions. Margalit told that when he recently met with individuals connected to the Trump administration, he told them the U.S. “is Israel’s closest friend, and friends need to tell friends the truth. And the truth is that Israel needs to go back to being proactive and leading an agreement, which includes a two-state solution as part of it, which includes an agreement on the three blocs of settlements, on a security border on the Jordan, on a demilitarized Palestinian state, on the [Palestinian] refugee issue.”

In February, Trump told Netanyahu during a joint press conference that he would like to see Israel “hold back on settlements for a little bit,” a long-held sentiment of two-state solution advocates. Yet Trump said at the same press conference that he is “looking at two states and one state. I am very happy with the one that both parties like…If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, then I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

The Israeli cabinet approved a new settlement for the first time in decades March 30—a community for the recently evicted Jewish residents of the Amona outpost. But Netanyahu simultaneously said Israel “is taking into account President Trump’s position” and will “exercise restraint” on future settlement construction.

The way forward

Amid all the mixed signals and moving parts in the region, how should the U.S. proceed?

Michael Singh, the George W. Bush administration’s senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, said in an AIPAC conference session that a common American mistake has been to consider the peace process “urgent.” When approaching the issue from a constant sense of urgency rather than exercising patience, he said, the prospects for peace often “end up worse off than where you started.”

Israeli lawmaker Margalit said every new U.S. administration “needs a vision for the region.”

“Let’s create a vision where Israel agrees to lead something, including the three blocs of settlements that we want to keep, including some of the security issues that we demand,” Margalit said.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who also served as special envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, at the AIPAC conference called for an “open, above the table, acknowledged” relationship between Israel and the Arab world.

“There is a changing mood,” said Blair, who noted he has visited Israel 178 times, “and when you look around the region today, you can feel this change happening, even amidst the chaos.”

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