For 15 years, Saudi Arabia has been pitching its formula for peace among Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world, with little response from Israeli leaders.
And for months now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asserted Israel’s increasing strategic alignment with Persian Gulf states over their shared enmity toward Iran.
But it took Trump just a couple of hours after he landed in Israel on Monday to suddenly and quite publicly combine those two ideas as the centerpiece of his plan for a peace deal.
With the gusto of a salesman pushing a limited-time offer, he cast the Saudi monarch in a leading role and invoked his name to push Netanyahu toward progress with the Palestinians.
Breaking with precedent, Trump chose the Saudi capital, Riyadh, as the first foreign destination of his presidency
and told leaders of dozens of Muslim countries gathered there that he considered the kingdom a crucial ally in fighting terrorism and confronting Iran.
This reliance on Saudi Arabia recognizes the kingdom’s unique place in the Arab and Islamic worlds, which Trump hopes to leverage.
Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth gives it wide-ranging influence and makes it one of the few states that could have hosted such an ornate, international gathering on such short notice.
And its status as the birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest sites gives it religious legitimacy in much of the Muslim world.
The kingdom had also already proposed a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, named the Arab Peace Initiative, which the 22 members of the Arab League adopted in 2002.
It called for
- peace between Arab states and Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal to truce lines before the 1967 war;
- the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital;
- and a “just” solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.
Skepticism remains high in the gulf nations that Trump can achieve a breakthrough.
But proponents of the effort argue that recent shifts in the Arab world may have made the prospect of a regional peace less remote.
The Palestinian cause, once among the most resonant in the Arab world, has dropped down the priority list as chaos has engulfed Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya,
and as the gulf states are consumed with low oil prices and their rivalry with Iran.
Still, though gulf leaders publicly keep their distance from the Jewish state,
they have increasingly realized Israel’s value against their shared enemies and have pursued limited behind-the-scenes security and commercial ties.
“Despite their frustration with Israeli behavior regarding the Palestinians,
the gulf states recognize that Israel is a strong, advanced country with a military that could act against their common foes,
and that has intelligence capabilities that could mesh very well with the needs and capabilities of gulf agencies,”
said Jason Isaacson, an associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who has been visiting Arab countries for two decades.
He doubted, though, that such links would develop much without concrete moves toward peace.
“Small, additional steps might be possible, but I don’t see anything dramatic
unless there is a true Israeli-Palestinian peace process that is sufficient to satisfy the naysayers,” Isaacson said.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Trump sought to build new momentum for a regional grand bargain by claiming the Arabs were already on board.
“King Salman feels very strongly and, I can tell you, would love to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said.
“There is a growing realization among your Arab neighbors that they have common cause with you in the threat posed by Iran.”
Saudi officials say the offer is still on the table, but warn that Israel cannot sidestep the Palestinian issue.
“It is undeniable that there is an overlap of interests between Israel and the gulf states,”
said Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi political analyst and nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, who was in Riyadh for Trump’s visit.
“But there is just no way that diplomatic dialogue, much less relations, can be established unless the issue of the Palestinians is acknowledged.”
Israel dismissed the Arab proposal as soon as it was announced in 2002,
and the violence of the second Palestinian uprising, which was raging at the time, put neither side in the mood to negotiate
and further ingrained the view of Israel in the Arab world as an aggressive usurper of Palestinian rights.
Subsequent Israeli governments have spoken positively of parts of the initiative,
and in 2015, Netanyahu offered a partial endorsement,
saying that the “general idea — to try and reach understandings with leading Arab countries — is a good idea.”
Both the attraction and the limits of a regional approach were clear in the negotiations for a new Israeli government last year.
Netanyahu and the head of the opposition Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, nearly formed a government based on a regional peace initiative,
although an investigation by the newspaper Ha’aretz said Netanyahu pulled out late in the talks.
But a stark, rightward drift in Israeli politics and society stands as a significant obstacle to any two-state peace deal,
and Netanyahu has shown little inclination toward concessions, especially on the status of East Jerusalem,
an emotional issue for many Arabs and Muslims because of its holy sites.
At the same time, the Palestinians are profoundly divided,
with a weakened Palestinian Authority administering parts of the occupied West Bank
and Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization, controlling the Gaza Strip.
Jordan and Egypt have longstanding peace agreements with Israel,
and both have stepped up their coordination with Israel against terrorist groups on the Sinai Peninsula and in Syria.
But the most significant changes in recent years have been in gulf countries, where a younger generation of leaders,
like Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia,
and Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, have recognized the role Israel could play in their economic and security policies.
“This younger generation sees Israel much more in terms of practical alliances,”
said Stephen A. Seche, a former United States ambassador to Yemen and the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
“So suddenly Israel is not seen in that one-dimensional term of being the occupier of Palestinian land,
but rather as a potential partner against the greater evil, if you will, which is Iran.”
Analysts who meet with leaders on both sides say some links have already been formed.
The United Arab Emirates has allowed an Israeli diplomatic presence at the United Nations’ International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi,
and former Saudi officials have attended academic conferences in Israel.
Below the radar, gulf countries have purchased Israeli security, agricultural and medical technology through transactions routed through third countries to hide their origin,
according to people with knowledge of the deals who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to anger the gulf states involved.
But Israel remains unpopular among Arabs,
so formalizing relations with Israel without concessions for the Palestinians could expose Arab leaders to opposition from their people.
Some experts argue that they may not need official relations anyway.
“The gulf states essentially get what they need from the Israelis under the table,
and the risk that they assume and the heat that they would get from their publics and from Iran,
without progress on the key Israeli-Palestinian front is probably too high for them to open up pathways to normalization,”
said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who has recently met with senior gulf officials.