Don’t Waste Arab-Israeli Cooperation on the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

By John Hannah

Foreign Policy

May 2, 2017

With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas set to visit the White House on Wednesday, speculation is rife that later this year President Donald Trump will seek to enlist a group of Sunni Arab states in efforts to jumpstart moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Think not only Egypt and Jordan, countries that already have treaties with Israel, but also countries still technically at war with the Jewish state, like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

But as someone who’s watched the never-ending saga otherwise known as the Middle East peace process up close for a quarter century, I’d urge great caution. While I agree wholeheartedly that a historic opportunity may now exist to advance relations between Israel and several of its Arab neighbors, it would be unfortunate to squander it in service of efforts to solve a maddeningly intractable conflict that has defied resolution for nearly 70 years — and whose current prospects for progress are probably as bleak as they’ve been in a generation.

The logic behind the administration’s emerging strategy is straightforward enough: Israel and several Arab regimes now face common threats from Iran and radical Islamic terrorism. This convergence of interests is increasingly driving the former adversaries together. In recent years, contacts, consultations, and even nascent forms of economic and security cooperation have grown significantly — albeit mostly out of public view. The time could at long last be ripe — or so the thinking goes — to have Arab countries step out of the shadows and take center stage in helping break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock.

How, exactly? Again, in theory at least, the prospect of public meetings and improved relations with the broader Arab world would incentivize security-minded Israelis to be more generous in granting concessions to longstanding Palestinian demands — on such core issues as territory, settlements, and Jerusalem — than would otherwise be the case. At the same time, Arab pressure would provide Palestinian leaders with the political cover they need to justify making painful compromises with the “Zionist entity” that have heretofore been deemed unacceptable.

Why would notoriously cautious regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia, that have historically shunned a more activist role, now be willing to take on the added responsibilities and risks of playing peacemaker with Israel? The answer, proponents argue, lies in the strong interest the Arab states have in currying favor with a new U.S. president and, more importantly, securing his support for a much tougher American posture toward the rising threat of a hegemonic Iran in particular.

Certainly, Trump has left no doubt of his intense desire to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed by forging a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — also known as “the ultimate deal.” During his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February, Trump offered a full-throated endorsement of a process that would draw in Arab states as full participants. At a joint press conference, Netanyahu explained, “the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians.” Trump said that such a deal “would take in many, many countries and would cover a very large territory…. I think it’s a terrific thing and I think we have some pretty good cooperation from people who in the past would never have even thought about doing this.”

So what’s not to like? My main concern is with preserving the major strategic opportunity represented by Israel’s budding relationship with the Arab states. The fact is that the basis for that relationship rests entirely on the shared sense of danger that both now face from the radical Shiite theocrats of Iran, on the one hand, and the Sunni jihadists and Islamists of Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamic State on the other. On those issues, the countries’ views are largely identical. In contrast, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the differences over what would constitute an acceptable solution remain profound — with the Arab states, and certainly Arab public opinion, still overwhelmingly hostile to Israeli positions, particularly those of Israel’s current right-wing government.

The question therefore arises: Does it really make sense to stress test Israel’s incipient and still-fragile cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states on the one issue that remains the source of their greatest disagreement? Or would the wiser course, at least at this stage, be to focus their energies on building trust and cooperation in areas where they already see eye to eye, like combating Iranian aggression?

Of course, it’s important to note that the promise of enhanced Israeli-Arab cooperation is greatest against the twin dangers — Iran and Islamic terrorism — that also happen to pose the most urgent threats to U.S. interests in the Middle East. In an age of multiplying crises and declining resources, rigorously identifying U.S. national security priorities is more important than ever. From that vantage, countering the Iranian and jihadist threats are clearly matters vital to the safety and security of the American people. But rushing once more into the breach to try to midwife the birth of a weak and divided Palestinian state that would likely be prone to terror and anti-Americanism? Well, perhaps not so much.

Trump does indeed have a historic opportunity to assemble an unprecedented coalition that brings together America’s Israeli and Arab allies. He could mobilize that coalition around the strong consensus that already exists to combat the region’s most pressing strategic dangers. Or he could prematurely risk it by trying to bridge the region’s most enduring political divide, where Israelis and Arabs remain at fundamental loggerheads and five decades of U.S. diplomacy has repeatedly foundered. For a hardheaded president who likes winning and is determined to put American interests first, the choice should not be hard.