There are shifts that seem to be taking place in the dynamics of the Mid-East. Is genuine change being forged? Or are we being fed words that will lead nowhere, as we slip back to previous holding patterns?
The Trump “peace team” of Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt visited this region last week. They first went to Amman, to meet with King Abdullah II of Jordan.
This was very shortly after Prime Minister Netanyahu had paid the king a rare, brief visit. That meeting itself is of note because it signals a lessening of deep tensions that had existed between Israel and Jordan in the past year.
With our prime minister, the king stressed the need for a “two state solution.” In truth, Abdullah wants Israel – a bulwark against radicalism – at his border. But he would rather die than say so publicly, or, perhaps more accurately, he fears that he might die if he said so publicly. His kingdom is largely Palestinian Arab and, for economic reasons, he is shaky on his throne. He has just set a new government in place in an effort to stabilize his situation.
According to a White House release, with Kushner and Greenblatt, Abdullah discussed increasing cooperation between the United States and Jordan, regional issues, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and “efforts to facilitate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
This past Monday, Trump welcomed the king at the White House, with words of praise for the great friendship between the two.
A day after their meeting with Abdullah, Kushner and Greenblatt met with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. They discussed “the need to bring humanitarian relief to Gaza, and the Trump administration’s efforts to bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
From there it was off to Egypt on Thursday morning for a meeting with President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who has just won re-election. He called for a “just and comprehensive settlement” to the conflict, which he defined as a “two-state solution on the 1967 borders (sic) with East Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Palestine.”
Later that same day, the team jumped over to Qatar, and a meeting with Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. It was reported that they discussed “increasing cooperation between the United States and Qatar,” “ways to provide humanitarian relief to Palestinians in Gaza,” and “efforts to facilitate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
Enormously wealthy Qatar has been a huge supporter of Hamas, funds and houses the anti-Israel Al-Jazeera, has ties with Iran, and has long been identified with support for terrorism. In response to these positions, last year the Sunni Gulf states of Saudi Arabia (which led the effort), UAE and Bahrain, plus Egypt, imposed a boycott on the country. Demands were made – e.g., cut ties with Iran – that Qatar has rebuffed.
Recently, Qatar initiated a vigorous PR campaign to garner the approval of Americans, most notably influential establishment Jews. This is a story that is convoluted and in good part unsavory: some of those influential Jews were, at a minimum, expense-free guests of the Qatari government.
President Trump met the emir in New York in the fall of 2017; at that time he offered to mediate on the matter of the boycott, but had tough words for Qatar’s connection to terrorism. In April of this year, the emir was a guest at the White House. Now Trump praised Qatar, which, he said, had worked to reverse its support for terrorism. I will not venture a guess as to how much of this praise was the fruit of Qatar’s PR campaign, or motivated by a different political situation.
Quite obviously, what we are seeing here is a courting of the Sunni Arab nations by the Trump administration, with efforts to get them to provide assistance for or development projects in Gaza and somehow support the “peace process,” the details of which are still obscure.
Efforts by the Trump administration to bring in the Arab states with regard to the “peace process” are not new. That the Americans see an improved humanitarian situation in Gaza as being critical to securing a peace deal has also been clear for a while now. Appeals for major funds to be pumped into Gaza by the Arab nations reflect this thinking.
I have already made quite clear my opinion – based on the thinking of major analysts as well as much empirical evidence – that improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza will NOT reduce terrorism or bring peace closer.
But beyond the issue of Gaza, the question I have been asking for some time is whether Trump is aiming for a regional peace involving the Sunni Gulf states – most significantly Saudi Arabia – and Israel, or the goal here is securing the cooperation of the Gulf states so as to make a bi-lateral agreement between Israel and the PLO more possible. This still is not entirely clear. But we can see that, at least for public consumption, the Arab states that were consulted espoused the same old “two state solution.”
The team met with Prime Minister Netanyahu, on Friday. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (to the left, below) and Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer (on the right) participated in the meeting. Then they met a second time on Saturday night.
Netanyahu told the Cabinet this Sunday that (emphasis added):
“We discussed the diplomatic effort, regional issues and there was a particular focus on the situation in Gaza…The things that were said…raised the question of how to solve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza without strengthening Hamas…
“I have to say that there was absolute support for our positions and activities to ensure the security of the State of Israel and its citizens and all the residents of the Gaza region.”
Good to know that they are least thinking about the difficulties of providing humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza without strengthening Hamas. Whether this is possible is another question.
As to absolute support by the US for activities to secure the security of all of Israel’s citizens, I will vigorously challenge that below.
The one party with which the team did not meet is the Palestinian Authority. That is because the Palestinian Arab leadership has vehemently rejected any such meeting.
(Note of clarification: Sometimes the terms PLO and PA are used interchangeably. In point of fact, it is the PLO that officially represents Palestinian Arabs, and with which all negotiations are done. The PA is an interim administrative entity set up by Oslo; it has, however, great overlap with the PLO just in the sense that many of the same people, starting with Abbas, are associated with both groups.)
The Palestinian Arab leadership is furious. On Saturday, the PLO’s Saeb Erekat charged that the US wanted to “bring down the Palestinian Authority”:
“The goal behind this is to sustain the coup [Hamas takeover of Gaza] and keep Gaza separated from the West Bank on the way to creating a mini-state in Gaza while bringing down the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.”
As to a US effort to destroy the PA, Erekat is wrong. The PA is on the way to destroying itself with its adamant refusal to discuss negotiations because it cannot have everything it demands.
The team repeatedly reached out to Abbas, with no success. What Jared Kushner has now said is that he doubts that Abbas has either the will or the capacity to negotiate peace.
Mazel tov! This is a much delayed sign that the US may be growing more realistic. However, Kushner has now begun to reach out directly to Palestinian Arabs in Judea and Samaria:
“There have been countless mistakes and missed opportunities over the years, and you, the Palestinian people, have paid the price. Don’t let your leadership reject a plan they haven’t even seen.” (Emphasis added)
Don’t let? Either this is empty rhetoric being utilized for effect, or Kushner has exposed his naiveté. The PA is not a liberal democracy in which the people have a say.
What the team is saying now is that the “peace plan” will be made public soon if the PA does not join the conversation.
This suggests that they will continue without Abbas, although how is not clear. Do they hope to negotiate a regional peace that can proceed without the Palestinian Authority?
On the other hand, does this mean that if Abbas is on board the plan will be kept secret, with only the relevant parties privy to it?
Lots of questions, very few answers.
There is one charge that Erekat made that is true: that the US is handling Gaza separately from the PA in Judea and Samaria. This is not a bad thing.
It has been the fantasy of the PA leadership that ultimately they would reclaim Gaza, which was violently wrested from them in 2007, and that all agreements moving forward would recognize the PA as the ultimate authority in all Palestinian Arab areas. Now they see that this is not going to happen.
Erekat says now that the PA can ameliorate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza using tax monies. In other words, turn it all over to the PA. It’s a joke: The PA deliberately withheld funds from Gaza in order to weaken Hamas and has similarly blocked other plans.
On Shabbat, 26 fires were started by incendiary devices released in the air from Gaza. Additional fires were begun on Sunday.
This is without counting the occasional explosive weapons that are sent into Israel by balloon. These explosives, which must be dismantled by sappers, are disasters waiting to happen.
Again on Tuesday, throughout the day, there were a number of incendiary balloons sent from Gaza.
Yet Israel responded this time in the same lame, ineffective fashion: First, shooting near – but not directly at – those launching the balloons. And then, targeting empty sites in Gaza. In the early hours of Wednesday (today), the car of a Hamas leader – the car, which was parked and empty, and not the Hamas leader – was bombed. A couple of other Hamas targets were hit as well.
Hamas responded by launching 13 rockets into Israel during the small hours this morning.
I am SOO tired of this. And angry as well. I do not pretend otherwise.
Let us go back to what our prime minister said about the “peace team”: [they offer] absolute support for our positions and activities to ensure the security of the State of Israel and its citizens and all the residents of the Gaza region.
Right. What I am guessing this means is that they are saying, you had to shoot some rioters at the Gaza fence, we don’t criticize you for that, even though the UN does. You have to shoot near the balloon launchers. We understand this. We even understand that you have to hit some (empty) targets in Gaza from time to time.
But what if Netanyahu said, “Look guys, the way we’ve been doing things is not working. We have an obligation to protect our citizens and our land. We are going to have to go into Gaza in a major military operation”?
Think about it for a minute: Kushner and Greenblatt are working hard to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, in order, they believe, to bring “peace.”
Were we to go into Gaza, should we decide this was important if not necessary from a security perspective, it would further deteriorate the humanitarian situation. Would the Americans be totally on board for this? Would they understand that sometimes it has to be worse before it can truly be better?
More important: Would our government have the courage to go into Gaza if the military advised this as a necessary step for the security of our citizens? Or does Netanyahu see himself as caught between a rock and a hard place – willing to let Israeli citizens suffer and endure risk so as to not rock the boat with a generally very supportive American administration?
These are big and important questions, to which I will return. Netanyahu is floating ideas about a port for Gaza operated out of Cyprus. I believe this idea will go nowhere, but I will write further about this possible development if it stays alive.
Let me end with a charming video I picked up on Israellycool: “Jerusalem of Gold” rendered beautifully by Japanese tourists.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.