Mideast peace plan’s rocky start: Did US misread Arab politics?

Bilal Hussein/AP
Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa – seen here at the January Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut – this week defended his country’s decision to host a U.S.-engineered summit on Middle East peace.

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Palestinians have expressed mostly alienation from President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan. Their position: Independence is nonnegotiable, and the Trump administration’s actions to date, both favoring Israel and hostile to Palestinians, have undermined any lingering faith that the United States can broker an acceptable agreement.

So it should have been no surprise that their reaction to the plan’s first phase, an economic conference in Bahrain, was hostile, even though the U.S. insists there is more to the grand plan than money. But regional analysts say that beyond alienating the Palestinians, the U.S. miscalculated by misreading the internal dynamics of Arab world politics.

Why We Wrote This

There should be peace in the Middle East. All agree. So however much skepticism has been expressed of President Trump’s long promised grand plan, there was still, at the very least, curiosity about what it would contain.

For one, Palestinian independence and Jerusalem are emotive issues, giving the Palestinians a powerful veto over diplomatic initiatives. Second, as a consequence, there are limits to how much America’s wealthy allies in the Gulf can pressure the Palestinians without paying a price.

Says Khaled Elgindy, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority: “Arab public opinion still matters, and that is what gives Palestinians leverage in those Arab states – to make appeals to Arab publics, especially on key issues such as Jerusalem.”

The first phase of the long-awaited U.S. plan for Middle East peace, a summit in Bahrain to discuss economic investment in the Palestinians, is already beginning to look like a major miscalculation.

The announcement this week of the June 25-26 event was met with a wave of derision among Palestinians and in the Arab press, culminating Wednesday in the Palestinian Authority’s official rejection of the U.S. invitation to attend.

The central complaint: that the economic component of peace could not be addressed without agreeing first on fundamental political principles.

Why We Wrote This

There should be peace in the Middle East. All agree. So however much skepticism has been expressed of President Trump’s long promised grand plan, there was still, at the very least, curiosity about what it would contain.

Or put another way: Palestinian independence is nonnegotiable, and the Trump administration’s actions to date, both favoring Israel and hostile to Palestinians, have undermined any lingering faith that a U.S.-led process can lead to an acceptable agreement.

But, say analysts, the U.S. miscalculation in launching the economic phase of its peace plan first goes beyond the alienation of the Palestinians and the precipitation of their boycott. At its core, they say, it exposes the administration’s inability to read the internal dynamics of Arab politics – a misreading that has jeopardized the much-touted peace process before it even begins.

Cart before the horse?

Despite repeated statements by Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, that the deal is “more than just economic peace,” analysts say that by choosing to launch the economic component as the first pillar of its plan next month, Washington has done little to win over skeptics.

“When you roll out this great economic component first, that suggests that the plan itself is primarily economic,” says Khaled Elgindy, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. “If they are not talking about a Palestinian state and are rolling out an economic component first, it is reasonable to assume that the political component itself is limited.”

Without discussing political issues – the status of Jerusalem, a Palestinian state, refugees, or settlement freezes – the United States has cemented a view among Palestinians and Arabs that the peace plan is an “economic normalization” with Israel that legalizes the status quo in return for economic development.

Moreover, it boosted the Palestinian leadership’s argument that the unreleased deal is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision: a future with permanent Jewish settlements in the West Bank, an Israeli Jerusalem, and no Palestinian state.

What is left at Bahrain is a low-risk and low-reward conference that Palestinians can boycott and Arab states can attend without the risk of being seen as making any commitments to a U.S.-proposed deal.

It remains unknown whether the Gulf states, themselves embroiled in a costly war in Yemen and facing rising unemployment, will even open up their checkbooks without the Palestinians on board.

“I think everybody going to Bahrain is skeptical of any positive result – very skeptical, to put it mildly – because the Arabs do not feel there is a credible Israeli partner for peace,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst.

“There is a sense that this conference, like any other conference, will not be enough to convince Israel to finally come up with a desired outcome – a Palestinian state.”

Limits of pressure

The Trump administration’s peace process was built on the belief that Washington and the Gulf – namely through Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – could bring the Palestinian leadership to heel with a combination of political pressure and cuts in U.S. aid, say those close to negotiations.

Seeing the Palestinian Authority as politically weak and financially dependent on both the U.S. and Arab capitals, Washington overlooked or undervalued the Palestinians’ greatest asset.

“The Palestinians’ main leverage is to deny legitimacy to this process, not only through their lack of participation, but also through the Arab states’ participation themselves,” says Mr. Elgindy.

Analysts say the Trump administration has underestimated the emotive issues at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Palestine as a symbol of Arab independence; and Jerusalem, holy to Arab Muslims and Christians.

“Arab public opinion still matters, and that is what gives Palestinians leverage in those Arab states – to make appeals to Arab publics, especially on key issues such as Jerusalem,” says Mr. Elgindy.

Backed into a corner by Saudi Arabia and the U.S., Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others in the Palestinian leadership have resorted to appealing to the Arab public – pushing a narrative that Mr. Trump’s so-called “ultimate deal” was a surrender of both Jerusalem and a Palestinian state.

Fethi Belaid/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (r.) and the secretary general of the PLO, Saeb Erekat, attend the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, March 31. The Palestinian Authority this week formally rejected an invitation to attend an economic conference in Bahrain.

Setting the tone

Reports in the U.S. press in 2017 of an alleged proposal by Crown Prince Mohammed and Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, that would forgo East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital and create a Palestinian state on less than all of the West Bank and Gaza enflamed Arab public opinion. Saudi Arabia was accused of trying to “sell off” Jerusalem in return for U.S.-Israeli support against Iran.

Saudi King Salman publicly overruled his son in mid-2018, stating that Jerusalem is a “red line” and moving to reassure the Palestinian Authority with funds and a return to the kingdom’s original stance. Since the reversal, the Saudi crown prince has been pushed to the background on peace-related issues.

The incident exposed the limits of Gulf pressure and offered a road map for the Palestinian leadership they have used repeatedly in response to pressure from Washington and Arab states.

“They are simply trying to show the amount of money Palestinians could receive if they accept their terms of surrender,” Saeb Erakat, PLO secretary general and lead negotiator, says of the conference, describing the U.S. plan as a “colonization of Palestine.”

Gulf states have since been cautious in discussing their positions on the still-unreleased U.S. plan, even in announcing next month’s conference.

“The peace workshop is a continuation of [Bahrain’s] supportive approach to enable the Palestinian people to enhance their abilities and resources to achieve their legitimate aspirations. ... There is no other objective behind hosting,” the Bahraini foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, said this week on Twitter. “We have nothing but admiration and respect for the Palestinian leadership.”

In announcing its participation in the conference, the UAE reiterated “its support for the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital,” stressing “efforts aimed at development and prosperity are not in conflict with the UAE’s position.”

The Trump Administration’s strategy of Arab-led pressure without political incentives not only backfired, say Arab analysts and officials, but fractured Arab-Palestinian ties to the point where Arab states have lost much of their sway over Palestinian leadership.

The Palestinian defiance reportedly has led Gulf states to search for alternatives to Mr. Abbas within the Palestinian Authority who would back the deal, but they were unsuccessful.

A growing concern for the Gulf states is that if they press the beleaguered Mr. Abbas too hard, that could boost the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Hamas in the West Bank, with one Gulf official saying, “we do not want to lose the Palestinian arena to extremists.”

“The gap between the Palestinians and key capitals in the Arab world are greater than ever, the Palestinians are more divided than ever, [and] they are having a difficult time with this American administration,” says Mr. Abdulla, the Emirati analyst.

Alienated Allies

One of the Trump administration’s key mistakes, say regional analysts and officials, was to exaggerate the leverage that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other oil-rich Gulf states have over their allies and patrons across the region, and to overlook the nuances and competing interests in intra-Arab politics.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt has made its support for the U.S. approach dependent on concessions – most notably an increase in U.S. financial support and designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist movement.

Yet even as Mr. Trump hinted the U.S. will deliver on the Brotherhood, Cairo has apparently hesitated over the domestic political fallout of a deal that appears to “give away Jerusalem.”

And Jordan, one of two Arab states with full ties with Israel and perhaps the state with the greatest influence over Palestinian leadership, has become the least likely or able to publicly support the Trump plan.

Jordan’s King Abdullah reportedly was blindsided by the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and later to defund UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides critical services to over 1 million Palestinians in his kingdom.

The Trump administration had sidelined Jordan in the belief that the resource-poor kingdom’s reliance on U.S. and Gulf aid would make it step in line no matter the political cost, according to those close to Jordan-U.S. discussions.

But the prospect of a Palestinian state is an issue of national security for Jordan, home to 3 million Palestinian refugees and some 3 million tribal Jordanians. The latter fear that either the permanent settlement of the refugees or the death of a two-state solution would undermine their standing in their own country.

Publicly, Jordan has remained defiant, with King Abdullah hinting at American pressure and reassuring his people that “Jerusalem is a red line,” while reportedly advocating Washington in private to rethink its approach.

Pressure is ongoing behind closed doors from Arab states on Palestinian leadership to soften their opposition, but with every actor reaching their political and diplomatic limits, frustration and apathy is growing in Arab capitals as the Bahrain conference nears.

“The Gulf has failed in delivering the Palestinians, and the Arab street is united against this deal,” says Hassan Barari, a Jordanian political analyst and expert in Israeli-Arab ties.

“In the eyes of the Arab states, this is another failed US-led peace process, but this time it has failed before it has even begun.”

Adds Mr. Erakat: “I hope they are getting to realize that Palestine is a country with a people and a just cause rather than a piece of real estate in New York.”

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