Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ leaves Gulf allies struggling to respond

Regional leaders reacted to the US peace initiative with a qualified welcome, followed by more overt criticism. Ambiguous responses reflect the need to placate two very different constituencies: the mercurial Donald Trump and domestic audiences who may cling on to the Arab Street’s traditional loyalty to the Palestinian cause

The “Deal of the Century” has finally emerged, with typically Trumpian braggadocio, several Gulf ambassadors and embattled Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in attendance. This was countered by muted defiance from the aging Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership and a flurry of rockets from Hamas in Gaza, to which Israel predictably responded in kind. After decades of conflict in the post-colonial Middle East’s traditionally central issue, US President Donald Trump’s unbalanced proposal to wrap up the Israel-Palestine conflict was more notable for the majority of tired and ambiguous responses it received, than for shifting geopolitical tectonic plates (GSN 1,065/1).

As Trump has given his key Arab allies a potentially expensive leading role – not least in buying off Palestinian communities cantoned into some of an already small country’s more unpromising corners – Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) neighbours cannot ignore their implication in the Deal of the Century. They have been struggling to find a suitable response that neither offends Trump’s prickly sensibilities in Washington nor alienates domestic audiences, who may not have forgotten the Palestinian cause.

The Trump proposals – drawn up by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, in consultation with Israel but not with President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA – have been widely dismissed as a non-starter by Palestinian leaders and some others in the region, notably including Jordan, as well as resurgent regional power Turkey. However, there has been a notably muted response from Gulf capitals.

The Trump-Kushner plan offers no obvious route to a viable independent state as demanded by the Palestinians, other Arab states and swathes of international opinion over many decades. It involves land swaps and annexations of Palestinian territory which would leave Israel in charge of all external borders. PA control would restricted to a loosely-connected archipelago of settlements through the West Bank and clumps along Israel’s southern border connected to Gaza, in a recognition of the extent that Israeli settlers have colonised Palestinian land. The Deal of the Century includes a tunnel being dug from PA territory in the West Bank to Gaza.

There would no longer be a question of East and West Jerusalem: the city would be wholly Israeli. The new Palestinian capital is earmarked for a hardscrabble area around Abu Dis and Shuafat to the east of the Old City. (Confusingly, the plan seems to suggest this suburb could be renamed Al-Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem.) In essence, the Trump blueprint calls for the creation of a neutered Palestinian state under near-total Israeli security control.

From a Palestinian perspective, the proposals seem less than meagre. But the proposed deal nonetheless appears to have shifted the goalposts for some GCC power-brokers. The initial reaction of countries including the UAE and Bahrain was to welcome the latest US effort, while calling for bilateral Israeli-Palestinian dialogue as a follow-up. This may reflect uncertainty as how best to deal with Trump – and a fear that outright dismissal of his plan could lead the capricious president to retreat further from the Gulf arena at a time when many states feel particularly vulnerable to Iranian aggression.

Portents of the present

Ambassadors from Bahrain, Oman and the UAE were alongside Netanyahu in the White House’s East Room on 28 January when Trump announced his plans, dubbed Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People. Trump praised the three Gulf attendees, thanking them “for the incredible work they’ve done, helping us with so much”.

His focus apparently far from his impending trial for bribery – but very much on reversing his fortunes in Israel’s third general election within a year – Netanyahu also noted the ambassadors’ presence. The Israeli PM said: “What a pleasure to see you here and what a sign it portends – I was going to say of the future – what a sign it portends of the present.”

In Israel the deal has played very well with Netanyahu’s base, leading Likud’s main challenger Benjamin (‘Benny’) Gantz to endorse the Trump plan, even if this means alienating some more moderate advocates of peace who supported the former chief of general staff’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) party in last year’s elections. In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu is widely expected to annexe more of West Bank, treating the Trump plan as a fait accompli.

Netanyahu on 5 February told municipal leaders in the Gaza area that Israel could launch extensive military operations against the Hamas-controlled enclave before the planned 2 March Knesset (parliament) elections if attacks on southern Israel from rockets and airborne explosive devices launched from the Strip continued.

‘An important starting point’

High-profile UAE ambassador Yusuf Al-Otaiba has described the plan as “a serious initiative that addresses many issues raised over the year”. He said it “offers an important starting point for a return to negotiations within a US-led international framework.” Three days after the launch, UAE foreign affairs and international co-operation minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan tweeted a link – without adding any additional comment – to an opinion piece in The New York Times headlined “Every Time Palestinians Say ‘No,’ They Lose”.

Other US allies in the Gulf tried to follow a more nuanced path of creating some distance between themselves and the deal without alienating Trump. Most eyes were on Saudi Arabia, whose statement reiterated the kingdom’s support “for all efforts aimed at reaching a just and comprehensive resolution to the Palestinian cause”. Riyadh said it “appreciates the efforts of President Trump’s administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan.” However, it saw room for improvement, calling for direct talks between the Palestinian and Israeli sides “to resolve any disagreements with aspects of the plan”.

Kuwait said that while it “highly appreciates” the US efforts, a solution could only come through the creation of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.

Qatar indicated it preferred to stick to the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative, proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 – a plan which involves a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. (The Trump plan includes a reference to this, saying the initiative “inspired some of the ideas contemplated by this Vision”, although it is not clear that any such ideas made it into the final version.)

Attitudes had hardened by the time foreign ministers met under the auspices of the League of Arab States in Cairo on 1 February. Unsurprisingly for an Arab League forum, its statement firmly rejected the US plan, which did not meet “the minimum rights and aspirations of Palestinian people”. Member states had agreed not to co-operate with the US to implement the plan, it said. This grouping too cited the Arab Peace Initiative as the minimum acceptable solution. Two days later, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) meeting in Jeddah took a similar position; its final resolution described Trump’s proposals as involving a “flagrant violation of the principles of international law”.

White House efforts to dissuade the Saudis from backing the Arab League resolution came to nought. Riyadh is anxious not to be viewed as being party to an agreement that would diminish Jerusalem’s Islamic character. Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al-Saud said “peace efforts should seek to achieve a just solution that includes Palestinian rights. Saudi Arabia will always support the choices of the Palestinian people.” This is despite members of the US administration expecting that Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – to whom Trump has been a steadfast personal supporter during some very difficult times – will be a leading financier of the Deal of the Century.

Differing attitudes among Gulf allies don’t necessarily represent a significant split between the Saudis and the three countries that attended the White House launch. A source familiar with Gulf leaders’ thinking on the Palestinian issue told GSN that governments were wary of crossing the Trump White House. “What we have seen is a very carefully worded statement that, while it welcomes the publication of the plan, calls on all sides to negotiate, and on careful examination falls well short of an endorsement of the actual plan,” the source said.

Iran, which was excluded from the OIC meeting, has been unsurprisingly damning of Trump’s proposals. Tehran perhaps senses an opportunity to be seen championing the Palestinian cause at a time when its regional opponents feel obliged to kowtow to a more ambiguous line. Foreign minister Muhammad Javid Zaraf called the deal “simply the dream project of a bankruptcy-ridden real estate developer”, in reference to Kushner’s former career. “It is a nightmare for the region and the world,” he added. President Hassan Rouhani called it “the most despicable plan of the century”.

From here to reality

Turkey’s criticism of the deal as being “stillborn” may prove to be a fair summary. That being the case, US allies in the Gulf may feel they have little to lose by offering Trump some limited encouragement. Many are less interested in castigating Israel than in the past, having found common cause in their opposition to Iran and a cutting-edge supplier of advanced surveillance and cybersecurity equipment. In some capitals, it is no longer haram to mention even intelligence-sharing.

Bahrain played host in 2019 to a summit on the economic aspects of the US plans, convened by Kushner (GSN 1,082/5). UAE ties to Israel are buttressed by its diplomatic mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are believed to have developed covert security ties with Israel. Omani officials have maintained their own contacts, as highlighted when in October 2018 the late Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said hosted Netanyahu in Muscat. This led to reports of plans to open formal diplomatic ties, which were denied by the Omanis (GSN 1,068/1).

Kuwait stands as the only Gulf state that has so far refused to engage pragmatically with Israel.

GCC members’ statements have tried to square an uncompromising circle by using the Trump plan as a springboard to advocate for a return to direct negotiations. “It’s really a way of handling an abrasive president who in an election year is playing to his evangelist support base,” said the Gulf source. “If Netanyahu does go ahead with annexation [of Palestinian territory in the West Bank], you will see a much tougher response from the Gulf states. In particular if they try to change the status of the Haram Al-Sharif.” The latter is known to Israelis as the Temple Mount; it hosts the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque.

The Trump plan envisages a role for a number of Gulf states but, like the plan itself, these are unlikely to result in any specific actions. For example, it recommends the creation of a security committee to review regional counterterrorism policies and co-ordination, with representatives of the US, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Araba and the UAE. The plan suggests that Israel and the GCC countries should work more closely together on shared interests, such as combatting terrorism and countering Iranian influence in the region.

The plan envisages the creation of a new university in the West Bank and Gaza modelled on institutions set up in the UAE and Qatar (presumably a reference to western universities’ satellite campuses). The UAE Academy of Hospitality (presumably a reference to the Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management in Dubai) was cited as a possible partner for a new institution in the Palestinian territory.

Gulf governments are keenly aware of the Trump deal’s potential to ignite negative reactions locally. In Bahrain, Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society said support for the deal amounted to “treason”. The Kuwaiti Progressive Movement described it as a conspiracy to quash the Palestinian people’s legitimate national rights. While the Palestinian issue is no longer the Arab world’s reliable rallying cry that it was in decades past, it remains sufficiently potent for Gulf leaders to remain wary of a potentially resurgent Arab Street.

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