The Trump administration and the Palestinian Authority are caught in a battle over how the Arab world will respond to the administration’s Middle East peace plan.
Both sides are trying to convince key Arab countries to accept their views on the plan, which could be released after the Muslim month of Ramadan ends in June, with the U.S. administration seeking to have a clear separation between the Palestinian reaction and that of the Arab world.
The assumption in the White House, according to Arab and European diplomats who have spoken with Haaretz, is that the Palestinians will reject the plan. The administration hopes, however, that some Arab countries will agree to accept it as a “basis for discussions.”
The administration, according to sources who spoke with Haaretz, believes the plan will be good for all sides and will offer such incentives to the Palestinians, and neighboring countries, that it will win support on its merits throughout the region.
The main concern in the White House, according to the diplomats who spoke with Haaretz, is over Jordan and Egypt. The administration is more optimistic, they said, when it comes to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — two countries led by young crown princes who have a strong personal relationship with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, has tried in recent days to deflect two news stories about how the peace plan would impact Egypt and Jordan, as part of the administration’s efforts to keep those two countries from developing a negative view of it.
Last week, Greenblatt said it was false that the U.S. plan would include a land swap with Egypt, in which that country would be asked to give land in Sinai to the Palestinians in order to allow Israeli annexation in the West Bank.
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Greenblatt emphasized that Sinai is Egyptian land and called the reports “fake stories.” He had to make his statement after the reports were shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media.
Haaretz has learned that Greenblatt has met in the past with right-wing groups who advocated this approach — including some meetings before Trump won the presidency during the 2016 campaign. Greenblatt, however, did not adopt the idea.
According to sources outside the administration who spoke with Haaretz, when Greenblatt was warned by former Obama administration officials in a meeting last year that this was a bad idea, he called it "a conspiracy theory" and suggested that the Palestinians were spreading false information in order to hurt the peace plan's reception in the Arab world. (A White House spokesperson told Haaretz on Thursday that this description of the conversation was incorrect and that Greenblatt didn’t make these comments.)
On Wednesday, Greenblatt issued another denial — this time of reports stating the peace plan would include an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian “confederation.” The White House had already denied this story before, but Greenblatt had to do so once again in light of reports in Arab media outlets. Greenblatt also said that Jordan and King Abdullah were close allies of the United States.
One of the Arab diplomats who spoke with Haaretz said that the administration believes such reports are being spread by the PA.
The same diplomat added that the White House is aware of how difficult it will be for most Arab countries to support a plan that will not include the establishment of a Palestinian state or a resolution of the refugee issue.
“Their message to the Arabs all the time is: ‘Keep an open mind, some things in the plan will surprise you,’” the diplomat explained. “They are having a difficult time convincing the skeptics that it’s true.”
Greenblatt delivered a similar message during an interview with Sky News Arabia this week — the second time in recent months that someone from the White House has talked about its peace plan to the network (following an interview by Kushner during his last trip to the region).
The administration is also looking for experts and former officials who would be able to defend the plan in the Arab media, as part of the battle over Arab public opinion.
In a meeting with Jewish-American leaders last year, King Abdullah said he “has no clue” what the peace plan will include, despite having many meetings on the subject with U.S. officials. The Jordanian king did not sound optimistic, according to two participants in the meeting.
Jordan and Egypt have both stated through official channels many times that they will only support a peace plan that includes a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The Trump administration is aware of this position. However, it is hoping that some Arab countries will not reject the plan completely but will instead consider it worthy of negotiations.
The administration hopes Kushner’s close ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his counterpart in the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, will help yield a more positive response.
In private conversations, administration officials have also pointed to the Arab world’s relatively moderate response to the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem last year, as a sign that the Arab world isn’t necessarily going to offer a unified position.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, is working to make sure Arab leaders won’t deviate from their stated positions on the matter.
Abbas visited Cairo this week, following Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s trip to the White House earlier this month, where he received a warm welcome from Trump.
The Arab diplomats explained Abbas’ main concern is that the U.S. administration will convince some Arab leaders to change their view of the plan by offering economic and security incentives. In the Saudi arena, they added, Abbas is counting on the elderly King Salman, who holds a more “traditional” view and has promised to align Saudi Arabia’s position with that of the Palestinians.