How Donald Trump’s Peace Plan Looks to the Gulf and Europe

Neil Quilliam and Reni Zhelyazkova examine how the GCC states and the EU have reacted to the US president’s proposed plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Expert comment Updated 20 February 2020 Published 19 February 2020 3 minute READ
Palestinians watch the televised press conference of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu on 28 January 2020 at a barber shop in Gaza City. Photo: Getty Images.

Palestinians watch the televised press conference of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu on 28 January 2020 at a barber shop in Gaza City. Photo: Getty Images.

The view from the Gulf

Neil Quilliam

There has been no coordinated response among states of the GCC, but the messages have been universal, and surprisingly each one has welcomed US efforts to restart peace talks and praised this particular US administration for doing so. But in each case, the same set of issues and concerns has been highlighted, namely the status of Jerusalem, the situation of refugees and ultimately a simple absence of a revival contiguous Palestinian state.

While much has been made of younger Gulf generation’s apparent disconnect from the emotive issues around Palestinian statehood, the state of Jerusalem and the larger refugee issue, older leaders in the Gulf continue to pay them heed. And despite a desire to coordinate with Israel on matters of security, intelligence sharing and tech, they will not advance the relationship under the terms of the so-called ‘deal of the century’.

Put simply, the deal forces Palestinians to concede ground on all matters of importance. And should the Arab Gulf states sign up to it, they will be judged harshly by history for not only selling out Palestine for $50 billion, but also footing the bill. As such, they all feel compelled to hedge and pay salutary lip-service to US efforts but know quietly they will die on the vine and that the Arab Peace Initiative is the only viable framework for advancing talks.

Even younger leaders know that the greater risk will come from signing up to the deal rather than twitter wrath of the US president.

Kuwaiti Parliament Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim threw a copy in the bin, emphasizing that it ‘was born dead’ and ‘should be thrown in the dustbin of history’.

While the Saudi official position towards the deal was one of qualified support, the Saudi press reported that King Salman had spoken with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has rejected the plan, to ‘stress to him the Kingdom’s steadfast position vis-à-vis the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people’. The king reportedly added: ‘The Kingdom stands alongside the Palestinian people and supports its choices and what[ever] will actualize its hopes and aspirations.’

Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, described the deal’s idea of a Palestinian state as ‘a brutal conception’ and the deal itself as a ‘modern-day Frankenstein’. ‘For Palestine, it is definitely a step back,’ Al-Faisal said. ‘[The Trump administration has] given up the legitimate history and weight of the United Nations Security Council resolutions and adopted a unilateral path.’

The view from Europe

Reni Zhelyazkova

The initial EU response to President Trump’s ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan was one of caution. An official statement soon after the announcement declared that the proposal needs to be studied and assessed but only a few days later the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, condemned the plan for being out of line with internationally agreed parameters.

Some member states like Luxembourg have expressed support for the foreign policy chief’s position. Ireland, historically a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, and Sweden, the only country to recognize the Palestinian state after becoming an EU member, have responded negatively to the US proposal, expressing concern over mentions of Israeli annexation of Palestinian land and stating that it falls short from previous international agreements.

Other EU countries, however, have been much more guarded in their reactions. Responses from Germany and France have so far been lukewarm – on the one hand, welcoming US attempts at re-igniting peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, and, on the other, warning that any future negotiations and agreements must be carried out in accordance with internationally established parameters and legal frameworks.

A strong voice of support for Trump’s proposal was that of Hungary, whose minister of foreign affairs and trade, Péter Szijjártó, commended White House adviser Jared Kushner on the plan during a meeting in Washington last week. Other EU countries are yet to respond publicly to the proposal but unity among all EU countries is far from certain.

The EU’s official position is that a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders and in line with previous agreements and UN resolutions is the only viable option for lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

However, Israeli foreign policy under Netanyahu has focused on strengthening bilateral relations with countries in eastern and central Europe. Cooperation with Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and most recently Slovakia and Hungary has improved in all areas – from security and trade to tourism and cultural exchanges.

Five of these countries, namely, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria recognized the State of Palestine prior to joining the EU, but the rise of populist nationalism, concerns over migration and terrorism, and improving relations with the Trump administration in the US have contributed to an alignment in views between Israel and the right-leaning governments in southern and eastern Europe, as well as those in Italy and Austria.

Improved bilateral relations have translated into political acts of good will towards Israel with a number of EU countries expressing support for Israel in the United Nations and other international forums. Austria, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic defied official EU position and attended the US embassy opening in Jerusalem in May 2018.

In this sense, Israel’s strategy in eastern and central Europe can be seen as a deliberate effort to break up consensus within the EU, and, ideally, reverse the bloc’s position towards the Middle East conflict, but also towards Iran.

At a time when the EU is managing Brexit, a complex internal agenda, including arguments over the EU budget, and with its relationship with the US strained over Iran, trade and other issues, it is unlikely that the bloc will contribute significant efforts to the Middle East Peace Process. It is even more difficult to see the EU coming up with its own proposal and even less likely that all member states will be able to agree on such an initiative given internal divisions.

Under the EU Neighbourhood Policy, the European Joint Strategy in Support of Palestine for the period 2017-20 has focused on supporting the Palestinian Authority (PA) with institutional reform, economic development and service delivery. Progress, however, has been limited as the success of programming is dependent on Israeli policy towards the West Bank and Gaza. This has hardened under Netanyahu, who enjoys the full support of the current US administration and sees the EU as biased towards the Palestinians.

Any plan that replaces the 2017-20 joint strategy will most likely be a continuation of the current approach which focuses on conflict management and supporting the already crumbling two-state solution by keeping the PA alive.

Some room for cautious hope remains, as much depends on the outcome of the Israeli election on 2 March and the US presidential election in November. Changes in leadership could open up space for EU to actively support the reinvigoration of peace talks and regain its relevance as a mediator in the Middle East Peace Process.