What might the future hold?
A Trump plan – and Arab attempts to set limits
The Trump administration’s plan for Israeli–Palestinian peace has yet to materialize. Rumours of what it might contain have highlighted the role of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia in such a plan, giving it an ‘outside-in’ character. And in an interview published in late July 2018, Jason Greenblatt (Trump’s special representative for international negotiations) confirmed the importance of the Arab states: ‘A lot has to be done with regional countries in order to try to make this a success, so I’ve spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and so on.’ Moreover, in late August 2018, Nikki Haley, at the time the US permanent representative to the UN, suggested that Arab states would need to put pressure on the Palestinians in order to achieve a final agreement.
This emphasis on the importance of certain Arab states could give them a degree of influence over the content of any US plan or the manner of its presentation (something that could make such a plan more acceptable to the parties). The Arab states involved may choose not to use this influence, or at least not to use it as fully as they could, whether out of a desire to remain on good terms with the Trump administration or out of a belief that their impact would not be very great (or both). In the particular case of Saudi Arabia, and especially Mohammed bin Salman, widespread condemnation in the US Congress both of the Khashoggi murder and the conduct of the Saudi military campaign in Yemen may translate into even less Saudi readiness to put the relationship with the Trump White House to the test.
While the leaders of key Arab states may not feel bold enough to try to shape a US plan in detail, some have made clear their positions on its essential components. According to one newspaper report, King Salman has told senior US officials that Saudi Arabia would not support a plan that did not include a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. The same report asserts that Jordan and Egypt have asked the US not to present its plan if it is not ‘fair’ to the Palestinian side. King Abdullah II of Jordan said publicly in June 2018 that there could be no peace without a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. And in late July 2018, President Sisi of Egypt reiterated to China’s Xinhua news agency his country’s stance in support of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital and based on the pre-1967 borders and the relevant UN resolutions.
If the US plan fails to respect these positions, the Arab leaders concerned will find it hard to support it. However, if the plan is presented by Trump himself and backed by the full force of US diplomacy, they will equally find it hard to reject it – particularly if rewards in terms of economic or security assistance (or both) are offered as inducements for their backing.
This briefing, in offering some thoughts about what role the Arab states might play from now on, adopts a scenarios-based approach. Such an approach provides a way of organizing one’s thinking about the future. It is, though, inevitably speculative. However carefully scenarios are constructed, what happens in the future may well not resemble any of them at all closely. The least one can say is that other scenarios are undoubtedly possible. As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr is said to have remarked, ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.’
The scenarios explored in this briefing are as follows:
- More of the same
- An ‘outside-in’ peace initiative
- Imposition of a Trump peace plan
- ‘Things fall apart’
Scenario One: More of the same
In this scenario, no US plan for the resolution of the conflict emerges, only one designed to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The Arab states continue to pursue their own interests with Israel (and the US), while keeping a wary eye on domestic opinion and paying lip service to the Palestinian cause as a way of managing that opinion. Relations between Israel and the Arab states remain important but largely covert, with Arab leaders making no attempt to put pressure on Israel (or to persuade the US to put pressure on Israel) in terms of recognizing that it could gain more from these relations if it treated the Palestinians better and resumed meaningful peace talks. Israeli leaders continue to believe that they can get a good deal in terms of what they want from the Arabs (even if formal relations, where they don’t already exist, remain out of reach) while ignoring the Palestinians and managing, but not attempting to resolve, the conflict.
Israel continues to make (or continues to allow the settler movement to make) moves that render a two-state solution ever more difficult to achieve. In response, its Arab allies issue statements of condemnation but take no action. The US makes further contentious statements on the core issues of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
In this scenario, a one-state reality takes shape, albeit without any formal political framework. This reality is unstable and often violent
Some of the Arab regimes, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, keep the relationship with Israel as discreet as they can, to avoid criticism. Others, including the UAE and Oman, are more open but remain unwilling to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel. For their part, Israel’s leaders would like more explicit acceptance of their country’s place in the region and, if possible, formal diplomatic relations. However, they do not need such things for their political survival. They are not, therefore, prepared to pay a price for these gains in terms of concessions to the Palestinians.
The Palestinians are the biggest losers. The leadership seeks further international recognition for a Palestinian state. However, its successes are purely symbolic and do not produce any improvement in the reality on the ground. With the path to a Palestinian state blocked, a younger generation of Palestinians turns increasingly to a struggle for individual rights within a single Israeli–Palestinian polity.
These younger Palestinians exploit all available opportunities to assert their rights, including voting in municipal elections in Jerusalem, although none of these moves is enough, by itself, to transform the situation. Such action encourages Israelis of Palestinian origin to vote for the United List in Knesset elections, as a means of increasing the strength of the Palestinian voice in Israeli politics. Palestinians of all kinds accept that the struggle will take decades rather than years, but are encouraged by the emergence of a Palestinian majority in the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.
A one-state reality takes shape, albeit without any formal political framework. This reality is unstable and often violent. It has echoes of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa – that is, political struggle is conducted by means of acts of terrorism as well as mass protest, and is met by harsh Israeli reprisals. The conflict is protracted and bad for Israelis (especially those who care strongly that their country should be both Jewish and democratic) as well as Palestinians, although much worse for the latter. (In this scenario, the conflict is contained within limits. However, if it escalates, it could degenerate into a third intifada and thereby something resembling, in some respects, our third and fourth scenarios.)
A ‘more of the same’ scenario could also result from the presentation of a US plan that is so limited in scope or so poorly constructed that it fails to secure the backing of the parties or the Arab regimes.
Scenario Two: An ‘outside-in’ peace initiative
In this second scenario, the key Arab regimes are faced with popular protests that combine calls for an end to the oppression of the Palestinians with protests at the lack of freedoms at home and the cost of adventures abroad. Opposition movements, hitherto clandestine, emerge into the public domain and use the Palestinian cause as a rallying cry. Fearing a threat to their own positions, wanting peace and quiet in order to attract investment from abroad, and anxious not to present a propaganda gift to Iran, the Arab regimes feel compelled to engage in proactive diplomacy.
In this scenario, the key Arab regimes are faced with popular protests that combine calls for an end to the oppression of the Palestinians with protests at the lack of freedoms at home and the cost of adventures abroad
They convince Trump (who needs a diplomatic success to distract attention from his domestic difficulties) that his dream of the ‘ultimate deal’ can only be turned into a reality if the Palestinians are offered a fair package. With this consideration in mind, the US peace plan that emerges is based on the API, and as such offers Israel comprehensive and formal acceptance by the Arab world. In order to create a ‘warm’ peace (something that Israelis have long sought), the multilateral working groups are revived, with the promise of much more committed Arab participation. As a further incentive, the Arabs agree to compensate Jews who fled their homes in Arab countries to live in Israel (or elsewhere).
In return, the Palestinians are offered: a fully fledged state with its capital in East Jerusalem; recognition of the wrongs done to the Palestinian refugees; and recognition of the wrongs done to those who stayed where they were and suffered, in different ways from the refugees, as a result. (However, because of Israeli fears of a major influx of refugees and their descendants, the refugee aspects of the deal are largely tokenistic.) While negotiations based on the plan are taking place, Arab leaders give Abbas the moral support necessary to encourage him to make reasonable concessions on sensitive issues – something Arafat did not get at Camp David in 2000. Morocco, as chair of the al-Quds Committee of the OIC, is active in securing the acceptance of Arab and Muslim states for the deal, especially those aspects which relate to Jerusalem, thus deflecting criticism from Abbas.
Not all Arab regimes are enthusiastic about this process, but it secures the acquiescence of those that are not: no Arab leader sees it as being in his interest to actively oppose it.
Negotiations within this framework are protracted but eventually produce a conflict-ending agreement. The region receives an economic boost that benefits everyone.
Scenario Three: Imposition of a Trump peace plan
In this third scenario, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt cooperate with the Trump administration to try to impose a skewed, pro-Israel peace plan on the Palestinian leadership. The US offer to the parties is a take-it-or-leave-it one, with no room for negotiation of the main elements. The Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians do not like the plan, but need US support against an increasingly aggressive Iran and so agree to try to make it work. The Saudis, under pressure over the Khashoggi affair and their adventurism in Yemen, are especially keen to retain the sympathy of the White House and use their money as leverage to try to get the Palestinian leadership to agree to the plan. Israel accepts the plan, despite serious reservations, feeling confident that the Palestinians will reject it for failing to address their central demands.
Among other elements unacceptable to the Palestinians, the plan prescribes a capital for the Palestinian state in Ramallah or Abu Dis (a Palestinian village bordering Jerusalem) and hence requires the abandonment of the aspiration for a capital in East Jerusalem. (There was media reporting in early December 2017 that such an idea was under consideration.) Under the plan, access to the Muslim holy places would be preserved for worshippers but the sites would fall under Israeli sovereignty. The plan makes no attempt to address the claims of the Palestinian refugees. Instead, ignoring the turmoil in Syria and Lebanon and the delicacy of the political situation in Jordan, it recommends that they be resettled in situ – something the Palestinians have always vociferously rejected as a denial of their ‘right of return’.
President Abbas knows that he could not survive if he accepted the plan. (Any conceivable successor to him as the leader of the Fatah-dominated PA would make the same calculation, especially given that a new leader would need to consolidate his position.) He therefore rejects it, prompting the US to impose sanctions. In response to these measures, Abbas abandons his quest for peace with Israel and decides to pursue reconciliation with Hamas instead. In line with his new course, he ends security cooperation with Israel and encourages resistance to the occupation, leading to a full-scale intifada.
Scenario Four: ‘Things fall apart’
The Trump administration, having failed to find a formula acceptable to US allies in the region, gives up its attempts to produce a peace plan.
Meanwhile, miscalculation in Syria leads to sustained armed conflict between Israel and Iran. Both countries suffer heavy losses. Iranian forces eventually claim victory and withdraw from Syria, having no existential reason for remaining there. This prompts a resurgence of armed opposition to the Syrian regime, and offers opportunities which Arab states opposed to Bashar al-Assad try to exploit. Elsewhere in the region, Yemen implodes; Saudi and Emirati forces make extracting themselves from Yemen a high priority.
In these circumstances, the Arab states and the broader international community completely lose sight of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. With the attention of the world on other matters, Israel annexes large parts of Area C on the West Bank.
In order to attract attention to their situation, Palestinians turn to large-scale, organized violence against Israelis. Some of this violence is directed by Hamas, which is resurgent in the West Bank. Palestinian groups and individuals carry out acts of terrorism against Israelis in Israel itself, as well as against settlers in the West Bank. The PA security forces are unable to contain this violence and collapse under the strain. Members of the security forces abandon their organizations’ efforts to suppress the intifada and take part in it instead.
Having completely lost control of the situation, President Abbas stands down. An armed struggle between rivals for the succession occurs. The PA collapses into civil war and can no longer provide services to the Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israel attempts to restore security using massive and indiscriminate force. At the same time, it seizes the opportunity to coerce as many West Bank Palestinians as it can into leaving the territory. Large numbers of Palestinians seek refuge on the other side of the River Jordan. This in turn destabilizes Jordan.
Hamas in Gaza attempts to exploit the pressure on Israel by launching rockets in very large numbers against Israeli targets, and by encouraging other militant organizations in the territory to do the same. Israel responds heavily and indiscriminately. Gazans flee in their thousands into Egypt, overwhelming the Egyptian border forces, which are unable to prevent them entering. Egypt and the international community are confronted with a new Palestinian refugee community in Sinai. Hamas develops a closer alliance with Hezbollah.
Some Palestinian groups and individuals link up with a resurgent Al-Qaeda under Hamza bin Laden, son of Osama, to attack targets in Western countries as well as in Israel. The Palestinian cause becomes identified in Western minds with international jihadi terrorism. As a consequence, some members of the international community side increasingly with Israel. Others do not, but, despairing of a resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, concentrate their efforts on what they see as the more immediate need to fight terrorism.