Trump’s peace plan and the Gulf Arab States’ reaction

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The Arab League rejection of Donald Trump’s peace plan confirmed Israel’s role as the diplomatic mistress of Persian Gulf monarchs. Arab states are happy to flirt privately with Israeli intelligence-sharing, defense cooperation and hi-tech capabilities, but hesitate to bring this budding relationship into the daylight. The Palestinians cannot prevent these liaisons but can still employ sufficient guilt to prevent the Gulf Arab leaders from publicly admitting to their dalliance with Israel.

Many Arab countries initially welcomed the Trump administration’s release of its long-awaited plan in late January. Ambassadors from Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates were present at the launch event. Those that weren’t — including Saudi ArabiaEgypt, and Morocco — nevertheless expressed support for the administration’s efforts and praised some of the plan’s positive elements. It appeared that Israel and the Arab states were ready to move from discreet affairs to international affairs.

However, any hope of a full-fledged embrace of the plan by Gulf leaders was dashed when, just days later, the Arab League issued a sound and unanimous rejection of the entire plan, underscoring how Israeli ties to the Persian Gulf continue their delicate dance of two steps forward, one step back. Denouncing the plan as a “so-called ‘deal,’” the Arab League dubbed it a “setback” to the peace efforts undertaken in the past 30 years. The Palestinians initiated this public meeting of the Arab League, knowing they could shame the Arab states into denying their intrigue with Israel.

A similar dynamic played out in January when Israel announced that it would allow its citizens to visit Saudi Arabia for business or religious purposes. The Saudi foreign minister quickly responded that these visitors were not welcome in his country, while knowing full well that many Israelis visit the kingdom under the radar.

Nonetheless, despite the Gulf Arabs’ turn away from the White House plan, there has been a noticeable uptick in friendly overtures towards Israel. Shared interests and Israel’s perceived role as a gatekeeper to improved ties with the United States help explain shifting Arab attitudes. Bahrain hosted a conference to launch the economic portion of the peace plan last year. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid an official visit to Oman in 2018, the first such visit since the Second Intifada. The UAE hosted Israel’s minister of sports and culture in 2018 and became the first Arab country to play the Israeli national anthem at a sporting event. And Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared in 2018, “Israelis have the right to have their own land.”

Spurred by a common fear of Iran, the Gulf states and Israel have been drawn into each other’s arms. The Gulf states now see Israel as an attractive partner in security and intelligence cooperation. Indeed, the plan even makes several mentions of its goal of bringing Arab states and Israel together, including creating a “regional security committee” comprised of Israel and several Arab countries.

While hostility to Israel diminishes, many Arab states, especially in the Gulf, have reevaluated their relationship with the Palestinians. Decades of Palestinian corruption, mismanagement, and obstructionism have bred frustration and donor fatigue. Following the plan’s release, Arab influencers, including the chairperson of the board of the popular Saudi-based newspaper Al-Arabiya, criticized Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for his obstructionism. By refusing to engage with Trump, rejecting the proposal before it was revealed, and declaring a “thousand no’s” to the plan after its release, the Palestinians have presented themselves as rejectionists and have given further room for Israeli-Arab union.

Additionally, internal Palestinian issues have alienated Arab benefactors. Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, remain divided. No conceivable peace plan could succeed with a hostile Gaza Strip run by an unrepentant terrorist group committed to destroying Israel, not to mention that Hamas, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is anathema to some Gulf states. And Abbas celebrating year 16 of his four-year term is a stark reminder of the corruption that has troubled Arab patrons.

Meanwhile, more pressing concerns, such as prolonged conflicts in Syria and Yemen, have relegated the Palestinian issue to the back burner in the Middle East. However, these conflicts have not fully negated the symbolic importance of Palestine to the Arab states, explaining the about-face the Arab League delivered.

Ultimately, the Israeli-Gulf relationship will improve from dalliance to alliance, or some other kind of partnership. This development should be a stern warning to the Palestinians that they are in danger of being left behind if they continue to reject peace overtures. Just last week, Israel and Sudan have reportedly set up normalization teams following a meeting between Sudan’s president and Israel’s prime minister. On the other hand, the Arab League condemnation shows the very real limits to Israeli progress. Israel should therefore temper its West Bank annexation plans to avoid jeopardizing improved relations with the Gulf and other Arab countries. If Israel wants to progress from mistress to partner, it must consider how its actions could harm its blossoming relationships.

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where David May is a research analyst. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow them on Twitter at @varshakoduvayur and @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.

Tags Arab League Arab–Israeli conflict Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Israel Mahmoud Abbas Middle East Palestinian nationalism

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