A Delicate Dance: The Arab World’s Critical Role in the Trump Peace Plan
Winning the Arab states’ public support for Washington’s peace efforts would have a powerful international impact, and would be difficult for Palestinians to ignore. But doing so requires concessions, delicate diplomacy, and precision timing. Despite the President’s confidence, it is unclear whether Team Trump can succeed where all others have failed
President Trump (R), first lady Melania, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President al-Sisi of Egypt in Riyadh, 2017 | Photo: The White House/Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead (public domain)
Small policy advances don’t appeal to US President Donald Trump. He sees himself changing the world. He thinks big. When speaking about Israeli-Palestinian peace, he refers to it as the “ultimate deal.” And he sees himself as the ultimate deal-maker. Having suggested more than once that he thinks such a deal is possible and not as difficult to achieve as many think, it may seem surprising that more than 18 months into his administration we don’t see much prospect of the ultimate deal, or even negotiations to pursue it.
Maybe this is simply a testament to reality. Peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians is much tougher than the president and his Administration apparently thought. Yes, they are making an effort, but clearly some of what they thought would produce a breakthrough has not done so—at least at this juncture.
Much has been written about the roles of the Palestinians and the Israelis in making or breaking the plan, yet there has been far too little discussion or understanding of the importance of securing public Arab support for any proposal. Historically, Arab leaders have simply deferred to the Palestinians—which was one way of avoiding any responsibility.
The Trump Administration correctly identified the need to get Sunni Arab leaders on board in order for the plan to succeed. But that was never going to be a simple task. Indeed, getting them to publicly support it has proven more difficult than the Administration initially considered. As tensions between Israelis and Palestinians deepen, it is unclear whether Washington can square the circle and formulate a plan that will leave all sides equally happy, and equally unhappy, with it.
The Fallacy of the “Outside-In” Approach to Peacemaking
Early in the Administration, there seemed to be an assumption that there was a new opportunity for peacemaking because of the convergence of interests and threat perception between Israel and the Sunni Arab leaders. This convergence would allow the Israelis to make peace with the wider circle of Arab states and the Palestinians could be subsumed in the process. Referred to as the “outside-in” approach, there was a hope that the Saudis, in particular, would join with other Sunni leaders and make peace with Israel. President Trump began his first foreign trip in Saudi Arabia, and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law whom he charged with leading the peace effort, did much to cultivate a relationship with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), the driver of revolutionary change in the Saudi kingdom.
But revolutionary change in Saudi Arabia also created a different set of priorities for the Kingdom. Domestic transformation was bound to trigger opposition from the religious, clerical establishment, as well as from members of the royal family. MbS was clearly ready to confront the establishment’s and his family’s opposition to change, and even to ride roughshod over it. But that did not mean he was keen to give them ammunition to coalesce against him and his father, King Salman, by being a leader on peacemaking with Israel. Similarly, he wanted to counter Iranian threats, not give the Iranians a tool to stoke dissent or troublemaking within Saudi Arabia—and peacemaking with Israel also seemingly lent itself to such a possibility.
The “outside-in” approach was always based on a fallacy: that somehow Arab leaders could substitute themselves for the Palestinians, or coerce them into making peace
When I asked MbS in a meeting in the Kingdom shortly before the US election in 2016 whether Saudi Arabia could take the lead in peacemaking, he spoke of the Iranian challenges to Riyadh and then fell back on the traditional Saudi response, stating that whatever the Palestinians could accept, Saudi Arabia would support. Reading between the lines, I took his answer to mean “my plate is full, and I don’t need to take on the Palestinian issue.”
To be fair, at this point Barack Obama was still president and the conventional wisdom was that Trump would not be. The Saudis believed that President Obama was disengaging from the region, and that not only was he unwilling to contain the Iranians but, by signing the nuclear deal and lifting sanctions, was providing the Islamic Republic the means to pursue their hegemonic designs in the Middle East. Under such circumstances, the Saudis had little incentive to stick out their necks on the peace issue.
But with Trump’s election, and his outreach to the Kingdom, there seemed the possibility of change, particularly with the new Administration’s tough rhetorical posture toward Iran. Certainly, the Saudis and others made it clear that they were supportive of the Administration and its initiatives, including on peace. But their concept of support fit more traditional notions of being willing to press the Palestinians in private to be flexible and embrace any agreement they might reach. It did not mean that the Saudis would take the lead in making peace with Israel—or even be willing to put public pressure on the Palestinians to compromise.
The “outside-in” approach was always based on a fallacy: that somehow the Arab leaders could substitute themselves for the Palestinians, or coerce them into making peace. Neither was in the cards. That did not mean the new convergence of interests between Sunni Arab leaders and Israel was irrelevant to peacemaking. With the right kind of American security approaches, and a peace initiative whose content offered something serious to the Palestinians, Sunni leaders could be persuaded to acknowledge the credibility of the American peace plan—and that could be used to gain European support. Under those circumstances, Palestinian leaders would be under real pressure, especially because the one thing the Palestinian public believes they have achieved is international acceptance of their cause. Jeopardizing that is not acceptable.
A Realistic Arab Role in Promoting the Peace Process
While there have been leaks about what is in the peace plan, the reality is that none have been authoritative and no one outside the Trump Administration knows what it includes. The Administration has a very small team working on it—Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and Ambassador David Friedman—and this group not only works well together, but even as they have reached out and consulted others, they have not revealed the content of their proposed plan. True, during the Kushner-Greenblatt trips to the Middle East, they have shared general ideas about what might emerge in the plan, but they have not conveyed the specifics of what will be in it. As such, they have flexibility in terms of what they will eventually present.
Kushner and Greenblatt have stated that the Arabs, Israelis, and Palestinians will love part of the plan and hate part of the plan. No doubt, if it is to work the proportion of love and hate must be generally balanced. In other words, one side can’t love 90% of it with the other side loving only 10%—and that too seems to be understood by the team.
What they also understand is that “outside-in,” at least as initially conceived, will not work. Expectations about what the Arabs can and will do have apparently been scaled back. Still, the team appears to understand that an Arab role is necessary, particularly at a time when the Administration has no direct or official contacts with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its President, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Those were cut off after President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017. For the Palestinians, it appeared as if their position regarding this highly charged issue had already been conceded, and Abu Mazen declared that the PA would not deal with the Administration and the US could no longer serve as the sole mediator for any potential peace plan.
Benjamin (2nd L) and Sarah Netanyahu, alongside Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, at the May 14, 2018 opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem | Photo: Kobi Gideon, GPO
Unfortunately, in this conflict, the historic rule of thumb has been that what is good for one side is necessarily perceived by the other as bad. For Israelis, the Jerusalem decision was historic and welcome—and part of the thinking in the Administration may well have been that by taking this step it would build its credentials with Israel, to the point where its leaders would find it hard to say no to the plan when eventually presented. That, of course, left aside the impact of the President’s decision on the Palestinians and Arabs, and the implications it would have for their response to the plan. Abu Mazen’s response was to cut off contact with the Administration. The key Sunni Arab leaders regretted the decision, but largely kept their response muted.
One can debate whether the decision should have at least been prepared with the Arab states and Palestinians. What is not debatable is that with no contact with the PA, these states have become more important to the equation—and that also seems very well understood by the Kushner-Greenblatt-Friedman team. That does not mean Arab leaders will sell the plan publicly or embrace it in an unqualified way. But it does mean that with the right content and the right context, they could say publicly that while they have questions about the plan, they do believe it provides a serious basis for negotiations. Any such public statement by Arab leaders—presumably from the Arab Quartet, the group charged by the Arab League with peace process responsibilities—would have an impact internationally and would be difficult for Palestinians to ignore.
If the attributes of Palestinian sovereignty seem too limited, or if the capital is in too small an area of Arab East Jerusalem, Arab leaders may balk
This type of a statement, whether issued by the Arab Quartet or several Arab leaders, seems to be what the Administration is aiming to achieve. Even this will require credible content so that Arab leaders have something to point to in the plan itself to justify their declaration that it is serious. What does that mean specifically?
From all my discussions with different Arab officials, I would single out two threshold issues: statehood, and a capital for that state in Arab East Jerusalem. The former is needed so Arab leaders can claim that the plan addresses Palestinian national aspirations. The latter is needed because the only real stake in the deal for the Arab nations is Jerusalem. For the Saudis, in particular, the only issue they have ever singled out has been Jerusalem; when we were at Camp David in the summer of 2000, Yasser Arafat told me at one point that he could not decide on Jerusalem on his own. Even if it was a negotiating tactic, the reality is that if there is no capital for the Palestinians within some significant part of Arab East Jerusalem, the Saudis and certainly the Jordanians are very unlikely to offer any public support to the plan.
It’s all in the delivery
As has been established, the substantive threshold for the plan is that it must offer a credible promise on statehood and Jerusalem. But if, for the Arabs, that addresses the “what” of the plan - it may still not be sufficient if there is not a smart approach to preparing the ground for the American proposal. Stated another way, the “how,” or the process of unveiling the plan, may be just as important as its content. The Administration cannot just announce the plan if it wants to avoid a rejection. It must provide the plan in written form to the key Arab leaders.
Until now, the fear that selected leaks from might spoil the atmosphere, to the point that different Arab leaders would lose the political ability to respond favorably to the plan, has militated against sharing anything in writing. But there is no substitute for Arab leaders—and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—seeing the text before the plan is presented to the public.
No matter what may be explained verbally to the different leaders, it will look different in black and white. In my experience, in negotiations, conceptual understandings are one thing; putting them in writing is another. What sounds good does not always look good. Yes, this will have to be done discreetly—but if President Trump calls the key leaders in advance and tells them that Jared will share the plan with them, that it must be closely held, that they must protect its content, and that anyone who leaks it will suffer in their relations with the US, there is a good chance its contents will be protected.
While the Administration will not want to negotiate the plan—especially having spent so long developing it—Kushner and his team will have a greater chance of success if they can later show that they incorporated some of the different leaders’ comments in the final version. Making minimal language changes may not much alter the substance, but will make it easier for different leaders to sell the plan.
Assuming the content meets the Arab leaders’ essential thresholds and that they have not been surprised by the plan itself—and even see how adjustments were made to address their concerns—the Administration will still need to work out an agreed-upon public response in advance. Practically, this will require negotiating the exact words to be said in public in response to the plan at the time it is unveiled. The response need not be long, but the Arab parties must declare in unmistakable words that the Trump Plan provides a serious basis for negotiations to resolve the conflict. Regardless of whatever else they say, that is the bottom line. Of course, the rest of the words in their statement, meaning the entirety of the statement, must be negotiated and agreed upon in advance.
The Peace Process and Middle East Geopolitics
Can the Trump Administration produce an agreed Arab statement on the plan? At this juncture it is hard to know. It is not a given that the plan will meet the two thresholds—statehood and a capital in East Jerusalem—in a way that Arab leaders find credible. If the attributes of sovereignty seem too limited, or if the capital is in too small an area of Arab East Jerusalem and without any connection to the Haram al-Sharif, Arab leaders may balk. Further, if Arab leaders declare the plan a credible basis for negotiations when Abu Mazen is signaling that he rejects it, they must be able to say that they have adopted this position because it will allow them to help deliver for the Palestinians what they cannot deliver for themselves.
Such a posture on the part of the Arab leaders would be unprecedented and will not be simple to produce. Ironically, if the Trump Administration were acting to blunt or contain the expansion of the Iranians in the region, e.g., in Syria or Yemen, it would be in a far better position to tell Arab leaders that if they want the US to stop their biggest threat, America will need their public and practical support for the peace plan. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is not what is most important to most Sunni Arab leaders, especially those in the Arabian Peninsula. The Iranian threat is their preoccupation. While the President and his Administration are tough rhetorically toward Iran and pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, they are not acting to limit Iranian expansion in the region.
Put simply, the policy is sanctions, not the use of force in Syria or elsewhere to constrain what the Iranians might do. In Syria, where Iran is embedding itself and building a land corridor to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, the US forces, in the words of General Joseph Votel, the head of Central Command, are focused exclusively on ISIS. Hints that US forces will stay to complicate the Iranian development of a land corridor are far less compelling than President Trump’s explicit statements that the US is getting out of Syria. The same can be said regarding his readiness to agree to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, notwithstanding that Russia violated the agreement that the two presidents declared to establish a ceasefire and de-escalation zone in southern Syria on November 8, 2017.
Similarly, in the eyes of the Saudis and the Emiratis, the Administration is not taking steps against the Iranians, when they provide the Houthis in Yemen with missiles to hit Saudi Arabia and anti-ship missiles to threaten shipping, including Saudi oil tankers, through the Bab el-Mandeb Straits. As the Saudis and Emiratis readied an offensive against the port of Hodieda in Yemen, believing it could change the balance of power in the war, they sought from the Trump Administration ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) and minesweepers before launching their attack. The answer was no. Even if there were good reasons, the message to the Saudis and others is that the US wants out of the region, it is not going to confront the Iranians, and it is up to them and others in the area to resist Tehran—not Washington.
In short, if the Administration would like to produce a positive response to its peace plan, it needs to demonstrate that it will constrain Iranian behavior in the neighborhood. And that is not happening. So, is there nothing the Administration can do?
Assuming the content meets the essential thresholds for the Arab leaders, the Administration will still need to work out an agreed-upon public response in advance
Ironically, President Trump’s desire to work with Putin could conceivably help. Russian support for the plan when it is unveiled would make it difficult for Abu Mazen to oppose it. Their support would almost guarantee wide international backing for the Trump plan, and, as noted above, Palestinians will not want it to appear as though they are isolated internationally.
But Putin does not give anything for free. If Trump were building his leverage in Syria by making clear we will stay in the country, or if he were acting to blunt Iranian/Shia militia expansion, there might be something to trade for Russian support. The President, however, looks to have already conceded Syria to Russia. As such, Putin will only be supportive if Washington were to concede on another issue of importance to him, such as Ukraine or sanctions relief—or the US were to grant the Russians a co-equal status on peacemaking. The Russian president would like the status without the responsibility of a diplomatic initiative whose prospects for success are uncertain.
Baked into the Trump Administration’s approach is a sense that it may be able to succeed where others have failed. Several factors seem to shape this attitude: first, while the Arabs may not be as ready to publicly pressure the Palestinians as the Administration initially envisioned, they might do more than for this president than his predecessors.
Second, the Administration’s embrace of Israel—whether regarding Jerusalem or support at the UN or on its right of self-defense or the common rejection of the Iran deal—means that the Israeli leadership and public knows that the plan will take Israel’s needs into account. As a result, the Trump Administration is better positioned to ask Israel to make some hard choices in the peace proposal. (However, the Administration would be wise not to take Israeli responsiveness for granted, especially if it is meeting the thresholds on statehood and east Jerusalem needed for the Arabs.)
Third, because Palestinians’ expectations from the Administration are minimal, it is possible to exceed those expectations, and with enough Arab backing to nevertheless draw the Palestinians into the plan.
Time will tell whether the Administration’s approach can work. For sure, other developments can derail its prospects. An explosion in Gaza or a conflict like the one in 2014 would almost certainly sour the environment necessary to launch the plan. Alternatively, Russia could decide to oppose it and give Abu Mazen the cover he would need, especially if the Arabs are touting its seriousness, to reject it—a good reason to try to bring the Russians on board shortly before presenting the plan. Notably, having key Arab support could build Putin’s incentive to go along with it.
In short, much needs to fall into place and little can be left to chance. If the Trump peace plan is to stand a chance, the Administration will need to choreograph a delicate set of steps and know for sure how the Arabs and Israelis will respond before announcing the plan. And that is no small task.
Ambassador Dennis Ross is currently the Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. He served in senior national security positions for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. His most recent book is Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israeli Relationship from Truman to Obama.
(Photo courtesy of the author)