A Saudi’s Advice for Kushner: How Your Peace Plan Can Still Avoid Catastrophic Failure

If President Trump's advisor wants to keep his Mideast plan alive, he’s got to harness popular Arab and Islamic support. That means changing course, away from economics – and dealing with Jerusalem first

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Jerusalem's Old City with the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest accessible prayer site, in the foreground and the Dome of the Rock in the background. June 24, 2019
Jerusalem's Old City with the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest accessible prayer site, in the foreground and the Dome of the Rock in the background. June 24, 2019.Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Malik Dahlan
Malik Dahlan

Whatever else you might say about Jared Kushner, it takes some courage to attach your name to an Arab - Israeli peace plan. The price paid by past leaders has been high: Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin paid the ultimate price, while others, such as King Hussein, merely suffered lifelong frustration. 

Strewn all around lie the screwed-up maps of around 30 previous versions of peace plans, from Count Bernadotte’s UN mission in 1948 to the Bush Administration’s 2003 Road Map.

This latest version, as revealed at the Bahrain "workshop," has the novelty of ignoring the political deal that will have to be struck by the Palestinians and the Israelis. What we have instead is phase one of a regional approach that seeks to involve the U.S.’s Arab allies in an economic settlement. The second phase will have to wait for a rerun of the Israeli election in September. 

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019.Credit: \ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

All we knew officially for months and months is that it is economic in nature, and it will be "regional" – possibly involve land swaps— and will result in a "new state solution." The final result is, of course, unlikely to satisfy Palestinian aspirations, however minimal – hence the need to begin with a $50 billion inducement.

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Nevertheless, Kushner’s regional approach had a method. If the Arab states can be co-opted, the reasoning goes, then the Palestinians must surely follow. This is the "outside - in" approach. 

Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will probably make their accommodations with Kushner – the calculation will begin with the thought that there is always more to lose than gain in implementing American plans, particularly in the context of a looming confrontation with Iran.

Egypt and Jordan have been willing to pressure the Palestinians into moderating their position by, for example, renouncing their diaspora’s right of return. 

But even these tractable partners have to take note of public opinion. On March 20, King Abdullah of Jordan returned from a visit to Washington, where he was briefed on the plan by President Trump, only to declare that the status of Jerusalem as a multinational, multi-faith city, was "a red line." In the same vein, Pope Francis and Morocco's King Mohammed VI called days later for the protection of Jerusalem’s multi-religious character. 

Protesters against the Bahrain conference with signs showing the Dome of the Rock and reading in Arabic ‘Jerusalem is not for sale’ near the US embassy in the Jordanian capital Amman. June 21, 2019.Credit: AFP

Then there’s the question of Israel’s appetite for peace, however few concessions it will, in the end, be called on to make. There are few indications of an overwhelming desire among Israel’s political class to reach a formal accord with the wider Arab world, having already reached an informal one with the states that count.

If there’s nothing much to hope for from the Kushner plan in its likely form, how much is there to fear? Well, the costs may be severe: for one thing, if it does fail, it is likely to bring down the Arab Peace Initiative with it, and end all newfound regional momentum towards peace. That would be a catastrophe.

So how can one now truly harness popular Arab and Islamic support for such a cause? 

Is there a way that the plan can be made to work? 

I would like to say yes to this, although my solution is, to say the least, counter-intuitive. I propose beginning with an agreement on the governance of Jerusalem

This “center-out” approach would seek to use a solution to the dispute’s central problem as the foundations of a durable peace throughout the region. This Jerusalem-first approach would involve the idea of "integrative internationalization," which incidentally, I also prescribe for Makkah and Medina.  

The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, has already angered the whole of the Islamic world. This has put pressure on leaders such as King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who marked his reign by including Jerusalem, the third most holy site in Islam, on his 50 riyal note. 

A Palestinian Muslim woman walks by the Dome of the Rock Mosque during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Jerusalem's Old City. Oct. 9, 2006.Credit: AP

A good faith American resolution here should necessarily begin by acknowledging international multi-faith governance, and the Hashemite and Palestinian roles in taking care of the holy places of Jerusalem. It should also seek to bring into the dialogue not only the Arab but also the wider Muslim world.

This means that three essential questions had to have been answered. 

Firstly, the question of sovereignty has to be decided in an Islamic law and Jewish law context. Secondly, there must be a way for worshippers to access the Al-Aqsa Mosque without gaining the impression that they are doing so with the permission of the occupier, and thirdly, any solution must avoid giving the Israelis the impression that they are less secure as a result of it.

If we are to solve the Middle East conflict – a reliable source of international discord since the Arab revolt of 1916 – we must have to begin with the practical and symbolic heart of the matter. That way we can focus the process on the central issue and, if successful, work outwards from there, regardless of the changing facts on the ground or the nature of any future Palestinian statehood. 

In other words: Jerusalem First. Not economics first. Get that right, and it’s just possible that everything else will fall into place.

Professor Malik Dahlan is from Mecca, Saudi Arabia. He is Senior Research Fellow, RAND Europe and Senior Mediation Fellow, Davis Center Negotiation Task Force, Harvard University. He also holds a chair as professor of international law and public policy in London. He is the author of "The Hijaz: The First Islamic State." Twitter: @malikdahlan

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