- By Ilan GoldenbergIlan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. From 2012 to 2013, he served as a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. From 2009 to 2012, he was first a special advisor on the Middle East and then Iran team chief in the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy.
Reports suggest that President Donald Trump’s team is looking at a regional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which leverages the common threats faced by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel to make progress on the Palestinian track. The President may even raise this idea with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu when they meet on Wednesday. There is plenty to recommend this strategy, but in the current environment a major new initiative is unlikely to succeed. Instead the Trump team should look for early small steps to preserve the possibility of the two-state solution while setting the table for a broader regional approach once the political situation inside Israel changes.
In recent years, ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors have quietly improved. Saudi Arabia and most of its smaller Gulf partners share a common threat perception with Israel as all see Iran as the primary threat in the region. Meanwhile, in light of the threats posed by the Syrian civil war and an Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai, cooperation between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt has also deepened. The Arab states recognize they have much to learn from Israel’s successful tech economy while the Israelis are eager to gain access to previously inaccessible markets so close to home.
But despite these common interests, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates political limitations for Arab leaders, forcing most Arab-Israeli engagement into the shadows and significantly limiting what is possible. This is not because of the deep love and importance Arab leaders attribute to the Palestinians. They are frustrated with Palestinian President Abbas and the feckless and corrupt leadership around him. During the last round of serious Israeli-Palestinians negotiations in 2013-14 (negotiations I helped staff), Secretary Kerry tried to convince the Gulf States to provide more economic aid to the Palestinian Authority. All he was able to squeeze out with significant effort was $150 million. During that same time Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait infused $23 billion into the Egyptian economy after General Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood. It is quite clear where their priority lies.
Still, after years of Arab media focus on this issue, Arab populations care deeply about the Palestinian cause. These are authoritarian regimes so they have some flexibility in how responsive they are to their publics. But thus far they have made the calculation that the political risk of taking big public steps with Israel just is not worth the political risk unless they have some cover in the form of progress in relations between Israel and the Palestinians.
The formula for overcoming this problem is well known and has been tried before most notably by American Secretary of State James Baker who launched the Madrid Conference after the First Gulf War. Israel would make concessions to the Palestinians on a number of fronts to move the peace process forward. With greater political flexibility at their disposal, the Arab States would in exchange take steps to visibly improve relations with Israel. This is the basic rationale behind the “outside-in” plan the Trump team is weighing.
But with a far-right coalition in charge in Israel there is currently no space for this approach. The type of symbolic steps that the Arab States would need to see are significant – a settlement freeze beyond the barrier built by Israel if not in the entire West Bank; recognition of the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations; or significant new flexibility for the Palestinians to build in “Area C” (the 60 percent of the territory in the West Bank currently controlled by Israel). Prime Minister Netanyahu may be open to such steps in exchange for major high-profile reciprocal steps from the Arab World. But these moves are anathema to Naftali Bennet, head of the Jewish Home party, and a key Netanyahu coalition partner who has the seats in the Knesset to bring down the government and cause new elections.
So, what should the Trump team do instead? First, they should prepare the ideas associated with the “outside-in” approach and start socializing them with all of the key players including Israelis, Palestinians, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States. However, they should wait until a new Israeli government comes to power before moving to act on any of these ideas.
Trump may not have to wait too long. The last Israeli elections were held two years ago in March 2015 and while a governing term is technically supposed to last four years, most Israeli governments do not make it that long. One possible outcome of a new election would be the rise of Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party, and a man who has made the regional approach a centerpiece of his platform. Lapid could potentially put together a broad coalition of left, center, and right that would be open to such a strategy. Another outcome that could also make such an initiative more likely to succeed would be a national unity government led by Netanyahu that included parts of the center and left but not Bennet or the settler movement. This seemed like a possibility last May when Netanyahu and Labor party head Herzog were deep in coalition talks, which ultimately broke down.
Another area for immediate progress would be to deepen trilateral Israeli-Egyptian-American cooperation while waiting on a broader initiative. Trump could take advantage of his good rapport with both Netanyahu and Egyptian President Sisi. Israel and Egypt already have deep tactical cooperation, but the United States can play a valuable role in encouraging them to deepen strategic dialogues. Trump could host a trilateral meeting with the three leaders, or Secretary Mattis could bring his Egyptian and Israeli counterpart together. These meetings could result in trilateral working groups to look at new areas of cooperation. Strengthened Israeli-Egyptian cooperation is valuable in its own right, but Egypt will be central to any bridge to the rest of the Arab world. Doing this as a first step now could set the table for a bigger regional move later.
Finally, the President’s team should try to get both the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps to preserve the two-state solution and improve the situation on the ground. The two biggest threats to the two-state solution are continued Israeli settlement construction, which renders a Palestinian state unviable; and the potential collapse of the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. Encouraging and incentivizing both sides, but especially the Israelis who hold most of the cards, to take constructive steps that improve the situation on the ground and avoid these outcomes would be a good start. A group of over two hundred retired Israeli Generals have put together a compelling set of recommended security, economic, and diplomatic steps that Israel could take on its own to preserve the possibility of the two state solution. And the President and his team would be wise to press the Israelis to move ahead on as many of them as possible.
Ultimately, given the strategic trends in the region an “outside-in” approach makes sense. But Trump and his team should set the table and show patience before moving too aggressively. If a new initiative is pursued too early and fails, it will just discredit the ideas and make it harder to pursue later.
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