Arab Leaders’ Support for Mideast Peace Plan Marks a Regional Shift
Tentative backing of U.S. proposal reflects changing priorities, frustration with the Palestinians and more willingness to work with Israel

By Dion Nissenbaum
Updated Jan. 29, 2020 4:26 pm ET

BEIRUT—President Trump’s Middle East peace plan has jolted regional dynamics, with Israel preparing to quickly annex West Bank land once expected to be part of a Palestinian state and key Arab leaders tentatively backing the U.S. initiative.

For decades, Arab and Muslim leaders have held fast to the view that any deal with Israel should include a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinian land, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with parts of East Jerusalem as its capital.

While many Middle East leaders still support those goals, officials in Arab capitals have been frustrated by Palestinian leaders’ reluctance to compromise on those points, which has prevented them from strengthening ties with Israel, officials in the region said.

President Trump announced his Middle East peace plan Tuesday charting a two-state course for Israelis and Palestinians. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib highlights three pressures that could bring Palestinians to the negotiating table. Photo: Michael Reynolds/Shutterstock

The Trump administration has wooed officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, and other nations in the region in an effort to transcend the political impasse, and to some extent they are responding. The most important regional players—Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.—both urged Palestinian leaders to accept the Trump plan as a basis for new talks with Israel, a move that would force them to make significant concessions, such as Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley.

“What’s historic here is that it’s the first time, I think since the start of the conflict, that the Arab position has not been a replica of the Palestinian position,” said David Makovsky, director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “That speaks to a wider sense of regional priorities that the Arab countries have, whether it is Iran, Yemen, Libya or closer ties with the U.S.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved swiftly after release of Tuesday’s plan to begin the process for annexing all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and parts of the Jordan Valley. Such a step would effectively cement Israel’s hold on land that has been one of the more divisive issues in previous peace talks.

Israeli leaders indicated on Wednesday that they might slow the annexations, but they have support from the Trump administration, making them likely to move ahead.

The U.A.E., Bahrain and Oman all sent their U.S. ambassadors to the White House on Tuesday, where their presence offered symbolic support for a plan that tilts heavily in Israel’s favor and rejects many longstanding Palestinian demands as nonnegotiable.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has worked closely with the Trump administration on its Middle East policy. Photo: ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Press Pool

The U.A.E. called the Trump plan a serious initiative that should be an “important starting point for a return to negotiations.”

Even Saudi Arabia, perhaps the Arab world’s most important supporter of Palestinian appeals for an independent state, urged the Palestinians to accept the U.S. plan as the basis for new talks with Israel. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has worked closely with the Trump administration on its Middle East policy, but his father, King Salman bin Abdulazziz Al Saud, has been one of the Palestinians’ most steadfast supporters, creating frictions over policy in Riyadh. The Saudi ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar, wasn’t in Washington on Tuesday for the ceremony, a glaring absence from an event of major importance to the Trump administration.

Palestinian leaders, whom the Trump administration sidelined as it developed the proposal with Israel, have rejected the plan. Activists called for a “Day of Rage” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which fueled Palestinian protests. But there are few fears that release of the U.S. plan will trigger sustained demonstrations that transform into another Palestinian uprising. The Palestinian side also lacks leverage to prevent Israel from moving ahead to implement the plan and annex parts of the West Bank without their cooperation.

Some Middle East leaders have expressed alarm about Israel’s plans to immediately annex the Jordan Valley, but no steps have been taken to thwart the move.

King Salman, for instance, called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to offer solidarity, but his government still pressed the Palestinian leader to accept the U.S. plan as the basis for talks with Israel.

Trump is the latest U.S. president to offer a Mideast peace deal, which Palestinians rejected immediately. As WSJ’s Dov Lieber heads to the Jordan Valley, he explains why Palestinians say the blueprint, which charts the course for a two-state solution, was ‘dead on arrival.’ Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

The modified tone in Arab capitals is a reflection of the shifting relationships in the region, where nations officially at war with Israel are strengthening ties with its companies and leading figures. Prince Mohammed has publicly praised Israel and privately played down the importance of the Palestinian issue, officials from the region said. Prince Mohammed met last year in Saudi Arabia with an Israeli-American Christian evangelical leader who lives in Jerusalem.

A variety of Israeli companies work under the radar with businesses in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. The Saudi government has been accused of using Israeli hacking tools to spy on dissidents. This week, Israel approved a law that allows some Israelis to travel to Saudi Arabia, though Riyadh publicly rebuffed the idea.

The U.S. is working extensively with the U.A.E., Bahrain, Oman and Morocco on proposals to develop nonaggression pacts with Israel, U.S. and Middle East officials involved in the talks said.

This changing tone is partly attributable to how Israel and key Gulf countries are more concerned about the threat posed by Iran than in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Israel has quietly expanded ties with Arab neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., the Palestinian cause has become less of a rallying cry for the region and Israel less of a pariah.

The Trump administration has viewed individual Arab leaders as pivotal to shifting dynamics in the Middle East to benefit Israel.

Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and the Trump administration point man on the peace plan, invested heavily in his relationships with Prince Mohammed and Yousef Otaiba, the influential U.A.E. ambassador in Washington.

Still, while key Arab nations urged Palestinians to embrace the U.S. plan as a basis for talks, other leaders across the Arab and Muslim world denounced the Trump administration proposal as an insult to Palestinian aspirations.

Turkey described the plan as “stillborn” and said Israel’s plans to annex land in the West Bank were aimed at destroying the two-state solution.

“We will not support any plan that does not have support of Palestine,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi also warned of the “dangerous consequences of unilateral Israeli measures…that aim to impose new realities on the ground.”

But there is little that those opposed to Israeli annexation can do to stop it, people involved in the negotiations said.

Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz, who is facing Mr. Netanyahu in a looming election, embraced the U.S. plan on Wednesday and said he would bring it to the country’s parliament for a vote. That could expose divisions within the prime minister’s party, and among his political allies, over key aspects of the American bluepri



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