Analysis

Trump's 'Deal' for the Mideast Sounds More Like Netanyahu’s Wishful Thinking

Despite Netanyahu's love for his 'newfound Arab partners,' it will take a lot to get Saudi Arabia and its allies to tinker with the Arab Peace Initiative.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump at the White House, February 15, 2017.
Evan Vucci / AP

The optimism that U.S. President Donald Trump exuded Wednesday about the possibility of a comprehensive peace deal for the region, far beyond a “small” agreement with the Palestinians, sounds more like wishful thinking bought at a big discount from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Does Trump plan to revive the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and adopt the formula of territories – all the territories – for peace, including with the Arab states? At this point that’s the only realistic proposal to make the U.S. president’s dream come true.

It isn’t known whether Trump is familiar with all the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative, but it includes one necessary condition – that Israel’s withdrawal precede a normalization with the Arab states. The withdrawal can be negotiated, but those would be negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. As of now, the terms Israel has set, recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state and total Israeli control over security in the territories, are terms the Palestinians have refused.

Highlights From the Trump-Netanyahu Press Conference Haaretz.com

The “deal” Trump and Netanyahu are playing with may aim for peace “from the outside in” – confidence-building measures between Israel and certain Arab countries as a step toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But even such a plan would need a commitment to something solid for the Palestinians, or at least for Israel to commit to withdraw from territories and allow the formation of a Palestinian state.

But even this option would be closed off at that point. Netanyahu is sticking to his position that there be no preconditions to any negotiations, so even the temptation, if available, to establish relations with Arab states would be considered a precondition. And that’s even before the attack he’d receive in Israeli politics.

When Netanyahu and Trump talk about a comprehensive deal, they’re referring to the countries known as the “pro-Western Sunni states” including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and possibly Tunisia. Israel already has random contacts with some of these countries, and sometimes there are exchanges of information or coordination.

But the distance from these encounters to a formal agreement is enormous. Even with the countries with which Israel has full diplomatic relations there’s no normalization because of the conflict with the Palestinians, let alone with countries where the broader public opposes peaceful relations with Israel. This opposition is based mainly on the desire to assure the Palestinians their national and political rights and end the Jewish occupation of Arab territory.

These are ideological grounds and not any divine decree, so under the right circumstances there could be flexibility in exchange for an achievement considered appropriate for the Palestinians. But these circumstances don’t exist now, and Israel isn’t willing to discuss any compensation for the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands following a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., February 15, 2017.
SAUL LOEB / AP

Unlike Egypt and Jordan, the Gulf states aren’t dependent on the United States and American aid to stay afloat; the opposite is true. On the other hand, these countries need American protection against Iran.

But even here there’s a difference between Saudi Arabia, which is battling Iran for influence in the region, and Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, which maintain diplomatic relations and robust commercial ties with Iran. So even if Trump suggested a circular deal – for example, additional pressure on Iran in return for advancing relations with Israel – the proposal wouldn’t be particularly tempting.

For these countries peace with Israel is no alternative to their Iranian policies, nor does it offer them any additional protection. Peace has no economic benefits (since these countries already buy Israeli technology indirectly) and it lacks a strategic rationale because Israel doesn’t threaten these countries.

So might these countries agree to tread the path of peace just to please Trump? Theoretically that’s possible, just as Turkey changed its position on Syrian President Bashar Assad to placate Russia after Moscow imposed heavy sanctions on Turkey after it downed a Russian jet. But the Gulf states and the United States don’t have the same relationship. It’s doubtful a deal so advantageous could be crafted that Trump could suggest it to the Arab states without Israel being asked to pay in full.

The working assumption is that if Saudi Arabia can be persuaded to enter some kind of negotiations with Israel it can drag other Gulf states along, or even Sudan or a Muslim country like Pakistan where Saudi Arabia has enormous influence. But Riyadh’s ability to drag other states along has proved pretty limited. Even more important, it will be hard if not impossible to persuade Israelis that it’s worth giving up Ofra or Ariel in return for peace with Pakistan.

It’s doubtful peace with full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, even if this included tours of the Asir Mountains, would satisfy the Israeli right wing. But what could make the Saudis renounce the initiative that’s also called the Saudi Peace Initiative, break with their partners and make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem?

If Saudi Arabia has a strategic asset that could affect the peace process, it’s the Arab Peace Initiative, whose strength is in unity. So far the initiative has served the signatories well by giving them the status of peace-seeking countries in contrast to Israel. A breakup of the initiative would mean relinquishing this asset for nothing.

Trump can (still) be forgiven for his dreams something Netanyahu can’t benefit from. He knows that there are no buyers in the region for the regional agreement. It’s the kind of merchandise you have to pay for if you want to market it. Merchandise on whose packaging you could write “there will be nothing because there is nothing.”