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April 4, 2017 7:25 am

Momentum and Mixed Signals: The Arab-Israeli Peace Process

avatar by Jacob Kamaras / JNS.org

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman, Jordan, Jan. 16, 2014. Photo: Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90.

JNS.org – Although regional conditions have created momentum for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace deal, Palestinian and Arab leaders are sending mixed signals to Israel.

In his recent remarks to the AIPAC policy conference, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu said that the common dangers faced by Israel and its Arab neighbors present a “rare opportunity” to build a more peaceful and secure future in the Middle East.

Israel’s covert communication with Sunni Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, has been well-documented — especially since the emergence of the Iran nuclear deal. In addition to confronting Iran and its proxies — including the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon and Syria, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen — the Jewish state and the Arab world also have a common interest in fighting ISIS.

At an AIPAC conference breakout session, Lori Plotkin Boghardt — a fellow specializing in Gulf politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a former Mideast analyst in the US intelligence community — called unofficial Israeli-Saudi ties “a bit of a silver lining” amid the current tumult across the region. While she explained that the Saudis still say they “don’t have a relationship with Israel,” defense and intelligence relationships exist at the upper echelons of both nations’ governments.

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Israel, the Palestinians and the US

Despite the alignment of Israeli and Arab interests, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the proverbial elephant in the room, and an agreement on that front is widely viewed as a necessary element of a comprehensive regional peace deal.

Official Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have not taken place since the Obama administration brokered negotiations in 2013 and 2014. Despite this, the Trump White House appears ready to jump back into a peace process that has confounded political leaders and their envoys for decades.

Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s international negotiations representative, held a series of meetings in March with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, including Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Following Abbas’ meeting with Greenblatt, the PA released a statement saying that Abbas believes “that under President Trump’s leadership a historic peace deal is possible, and that it will enhance security throughout the region.”

Yet at last week’s Arab League summit in Jordan, Abbas told the Jordanian daily newspaper Al Ghad that there are “no new peace plans or initiatives.”

Arab states are also sending mixed signals.

On one hand, the Arab League summit’s closing statement vowed that participating nations would “continue to work to relaunch serious Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.” On the other hand, several Arab countries — including Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan — plan to challenge Israeli sovereignty in all of Jerusalem at an upcoming UNESCO meeting in Paris, the Jerusalem Post reported. That move would mark the first time that Arab states have contested Israeli sovereignty in western Jerusalem.

Settlements and the two-state solution

Israeli Member of Knesset Erel Margalit (of the Zionist Union Party) is championing a movement called “Converging Interests” — an Arab-Israeli peace plan containing security, economic, socioeconomic, international and military dimensions.

Margalit told JNS.org that when he recently met with individuals connected to the Trump administration, he told them that the US “is Israel’s closest friend, and friends need to tell friends the truth. And the truth is that Israel needs to go back to being proactive and leading an agreement, which includes a two-state solution as part of it, which includes an agreement on the three blocs of settlements, on a security border on the Jordan, on a demilitarized Palestinian state, [and] on the [Palestinian] refugee issue.”

In February, Trump told Netanyahu during a joint press conference that he would like to see Israel “hold back on settlements for a little bit,” a long-held sentiment of two-state solution advocates. Yet Trump said at the same press conference that he is “looking at two state [solutions] and one state [solutions]. I am very happy with the one that both parties like. … If Israel and the Palestinians are happy, then I’m happy.”

The Israeli cabinet approved a new settlement for the first time in decades on March 30 — a community for the recently evicted Jewish residents of the Amona outpost. But Netanyahu simultaneously said that Israel “is taking into account President Trump’s position” and will “exercise restraint” on future settlement construction.

The way forward

Amid all of the mixed signals and moving parts in the region, how should the US proceed?

Michael Singh, George W. Bush’s senior director for Middle East Affairs at the National Security Council, said in an AIPAC session that a common American mistake has been to consider the peace process “urgent.” He said that when approaching the issue from a constant sense of urgency rather than exercising patience, the prospects for peace often “end up worse off than where you started.”

Meanwhile, Israeli lawmaker Margalit said that every new US administration “needs a vision for the region. Let’s create a vision where Israel agrees to lead something, including the three blocs of settlements that we want to keep, including some of the security issues that we demand,” Margalit said.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who also served as special envoy of the Middle East Quartet, has called for an “open, above the table [and] acknowledged” relationship between Israel and the Arab world.

“There is a changing mood,” said Blair, who noted that he has visited Israel 178 times, “and when you look around the region today, you can feel this change happening, even amidst the chaos.”

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