The road from Jerusalem to Riyadh still runs through Ramallah

The road from Jerusalem to Riyadh still runs through Ramallah
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Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerMnuchin to attend Saudi economic forum one year after Khashoggi death Career State official warned about Biden's son: report Buttigieg knocks Trump as a 'walking conflict of interest' MORE’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan roll-out earlier this summer was a failure. Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: Waters clashes with Trump officials over 'disastrous' housing finance plan | Dems jump into Trump turf war over student loans | House passes bill targeting anonymous shell companies Two new Trump executive orders will shape up Treasury and hold bureaucracy accountable Trump has floated Mnuchin, Conway for White House chief of staff: report MORE got it flat wrong: Gaza is not “like a hot I.P.O”. There has been no traction, no follow through, no investment since Kushner went public in Bahrain. Fortunately, regional expectations were so low that the consequences of Kushner’s misadventure did not trigger renewed violence. Despite the hype surrounding the “Deal of the Century,” there seems no likely breakthrough between the Palestinians and the Israelis any time in the near future.

Given these obvious failures in the Middle East, it is ironic that Kushner and the rest of the Trump team may have read the future when it comes to the emerging regional alignment between the Gulf States and Israel. During the immediate post-Oslo period of the mid-1990s there were some overtures to build commercial relationships between the Gulf States and Israel. The alignment of 2019, however, is fundamentally different than the tepid Oslo dance. There are four trends accelerating a Middle East realignment.

First, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel collectively regard Iran as an existential threat to their states. The differences in the Gulf with Israel over the future of Palestine is less consequential than the perception of the Iranian threat and the need for a tacit collective counter-strategy.

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Second, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are much more confident regional actors than they were in the mid-1990s. UAE projects immense economic strength which it has effectively parlayed into diplomatic power in the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, and in the corridors of power in DC. Saudi Arabia has aspirations of being a similar regional power given its Vision 2030 economic plan. Israel, too, is a much more confident state than it was in the 1990s. Aside from its regional military strength, Israel has become a technology power that is attractive to global finance, investment, and talent.

Third, this confluence of technology and finance presents opportunities substantively beyond the Gulf-Israeli commercial ties of the 1990s. Clearly, there are common interests in both offensive and defensive cyber capabilities particularly in response to the Iranian threat. But, these trends run deeper. Israel is a global leader on efficient water use, desalination, and off-grid power technologies — solutions required for continued economic growth in the Gulf. At the same time, the UAE presents a very dynamic finance and technology model in Dubai, effectively becoming a hub for much of the world where blended talent, technology and finance converge. These trends will almost certainly accelerate over the next decade.

Lastly, the political and economic elites in the Gulf and Israel desire these deepening economic and technological ties and are creating conditions on the ground where their citizens are increasingly open to these opportunities. There is of course the impact of globalization and the internet; Saudis and Emeriatis are increasingly globally connected and engage with the world. Social networking did not exist in the 1990s; now Saudi Arabia has a higher percentage of its population on twitter than the U.S. As the number of connections increase, the prospect for a Gulf-Israel alignment grows.

But there are serious challenges to these emergent trends. The disastrous war in Yemen and its resulting humanitarian tragedy threaten the long-term political standing and influence for both the UAE and Saudi Arabia — hence the recent UAE drawdown of troops in Yemen. Further, the Khashoggi murder challenges whether Saudi Arabia will have commitment to the rule of law and human rights necessary for long term economic development fueled by international foreign direct investment. Israel’s inability to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians and its drag of regular wars in Gaza undermines its ability to assert the nation’s full potential or a sustained global reach. Stroll the streets of Tel Aviv and it’s clear that long term conflict with the Palestinians comes at the expense of infrastructure at its urban core.

Despite these red flags, this potential historic Gulf-Israel alignment fundamentally changes the geo-political paradigm for the Palestinians. The region is moving beyond a “post-1948” period where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominated nation-state relationships in the Middle East. The Palestinians must confront both the challenges and seize the opportunities of this newly dynamic regional order.

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Specifically, the next generation of Palestinian leadership will have to adopt a radical new strategy — one which will be quite uncomfortable for the old PLO guard. Their best, and perhaps final, gambit for statehood is to embrace this alignment and serve as an economic, political and social bridge between the Israelis and Gulf states while being agnostic to any particular political outcome so long as it preserves their political rights and national identity.

To be clear, the Palestinians have undiminished national aspirations for statehood, independence, and autonomy. Perhaps, however, the Palestinians should seize the political initiative by forging Trump’s previous flip statement into their own ‘One State, Two State, Whatever’ strategy by positioning themselves as an indispensable party to this alignment. 

Freed from the dogma of the last 70 years, the Palestinians could envision a very different role for themselves in the Middle East — one where the road from Jerusalem to Riyadh runs through the technology, finance, and talent capital of Ramallah.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former Assistant Administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw US assistance to all global crises.  He led the USAID Mission to the West Bank and Gaza from 2014-2016.