A silence fell on Arab media outlets after publication of a report about the Gulf States’ plan for partial normalization with Israel. No official response by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States or Qatar was heard. The regular pundits preferred to deal with other matters, as if they had neither heard nor seen the scoop in the Wall Street Journal. The usual government spokespeople in Israel were also apparently struck by a condition affecting the vocal chords.
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When similar reports emerged in the past, official spokesmen, Arab and Israeli alike, would quickly issue a denial. But this time there were no denials either. That suggests that there is a solid foundation to the principles of the proposal – at least between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
On Tuesday, the last details were apparently hammered out between the U.A.E.’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and U.S. President Donald Trump in their meeting in Washington after Trump's earlier meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old son of the Saudi king and the de facto ruler of the kingdom.
The three anchors of the new agreement rest on the granting of permits to Israeli businesses to open branches in the Gulf States, for Israeli aircraft to fly through U.A.E. airspace, and for the installation of direct telephone lines between the two countries. This is still not the full normalization that was promised in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative or its detailed ratification at the Arab summit in April in Jordan.
But if an official declaration comes from Riyadh on this initiative, it will be worthy of the title “historic,” because for the first time, total withdrawal from all occupied territories is no longer a requirement for full normalization and the end of the conflict. Instead, this proposal is a road map, consisting of steps, with the first one making do with Israel’s pledge to freeze construction in the territories.
The other innovation is that the Gulf States will translate their practical involvement into a language that the Israeli public can understand. They might be able to exert local and international pressure on the Israeli government if it decides to reject the initiative.
Is this the way Trump intends to create his dream-come-true deal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and if so, why are the Gulf States willing to cooperate now?
The leaders of most of the Arab countries have much in common with Israel’s right wing. Both sides see Trump as a breath of fresh air after President Barack Obama’s terms in office. Both have an interest in curbing Iran’s influence in the Middle East and neither Israel nor the Gulf States have an alternative superpower to the United States. Concern over the shattering of the unique relationship created over the decades between the Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, and U.S. administrations, has led to the conclusion that there is no choice but to strengthen ties with an American president who might detest Muslims but understands the language of interests.
Trump was thus invited not to one summit but to three, one with the Saudi king, the second with the leaders of the Gulf States and the third with the leaders of the Sunni Muslim countries where he will deliver an address to “the Muslim world.”
It will be interesting to compare Trump’s speech to the leaders of the Muslim world with Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, where he pledged to forge an alliance with Muslim countries after a frosty period under President George W. Bush.
Trump and Saudi King Salman will sign two agreements worth hundreds of billions of dollars. One involves a huge weapons deal of about $100 billion to start, with an option to grow to $300 billion over a decade. The second is a Saudi investment deal in infrastructure in the United States of about $40 billion dollars. That is in addition to the new defense agreement to be signed between Washington and the U.A.E.
In the past, the Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, would join Arab initiatives that came mainly from Egypt. The 2002 Saudi initiative was unusual in this respect, but after it drowned in a sea of Israeli objections, Saudi Arabia tried its hand at local initiatives, such as reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah or dealing with internal politics in Lebanon. Salman, and especially his son, are turning out to be active formulators of policy although not always with great success. The failed war in Yemen is one example, weakness in dealing with the crisis in Syria is another. Now they will try to steer a political move between Israel and the Palestinians. The advantage of Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf is that it is not required nor does it intend to seek sweeping Arab agreement for its moves.
Syria’s membership in the Arab League has been suspended, Iraq is considered Iran’s ally, Libya is falling apart, Yemen is at war, Jordan and Egypt are supported by Saudi Arabia, as are some of the Maghreb states. Thus, partial or full normalization between the Gulf States and Israel will not obligate other Arab countries. But it will decide the question of who is to blame for the stalled peace process if the initiative doesn’t get off the ground. And if Israel and the Palestinians advance toward renewal of negotiations on major issues, it can serve as essential leverage.