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Why the US won’t lose Middle East allies over Trump’s Jerusalem move

President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017 President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017

US allies in the Middle East now see Iran as the primary threat in the region, and might be willing to accept a lesser deal on Palestine in order to gain Israeli support.

The announcement this month by the Trump administration that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, and eventually move its embassy there, was met with widespread condemnation. President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said that he would “no longer accept that the US has a role in the political process”. The Organisation for Islamic Co-operation (OIC) and its 57 member states called an emergency summit to show unity and defiance. Further afield, US allies decried the move, with French President Emmanuel Macron denouncing it as a “threat to peace.”

The immediate aftermath of the declaration led to widespread protests across the Middle East. Several rounds of rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip, while four Palestinian protesterswere shot and killed by Israeli Defence Forces. In Beirut, police fired tear gas to disperse rock-throwing protesters draped in Palestinian flags. In the city’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah organisedlarge protests with hundreds in attendance.

However, despite the significance of the announcement, the reaction from Arab leaders has been largely inconsequential. From Ankara, the OIC released a communiqué calling Trump’s move a “dangerous declaration”. Although Turkey hailed this as evidence that a “new alliance” had been formed to oppose the US and Israel, the unity of the 57 member states attached to the document is less than assured.

A tentative Saudi-Israel alliance

With the peace process at an impasse for several years, what was once the focal point of Muslim unity in the region is now taking on a secondary importance. Iran’s increasing penetration into Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon is now the principal threat, according to the US and its Arab allies. A definitive answer to the Palestinian question is seen as necessary to nurture Israeli cooperation against Iran.

In the days before President Trump’s announcement, The New York Times reported that in a trip Abbas made to the Saudi Kingdom last month, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman proposed a plan that would see the Palestinians get their own state with increased financing, but only limited sovereignty. Additionally, Israeli settlements would remain, there would be no right of return, and East Jerusalem would remain in the hands of Israel. Such a plan would be highly favourable to Israel, representing a sharp change in tactic from the Saudis.

Furthermore, The Times reported that, if Abbas were to refuse the terms of the plan, Saudi Arabia would pressure him to step down. This threat seems all too real considering the botched resignation of Lebanese PM Saad Hariri in Riyadh last month.

The move by the Crown Prince, if true, falls in line with the theory that the Palestinian issue is no longer of primary concern to the Saudis. A two-state solution, even one that is deeply favourable to Israel, would benefit the Saudis and allow the tacit Saudi-Israeli relationship to continue to flourish, with the US as a mutual benefactor.

Both countries have increasingly aligning goals in the region; Iran’s influence is ever-expanding, and Israel and Saudi Arabia are involved in several proxy wars to contain it. To its north, Israel faces theconstant threat of war with Lebanese Hezbollah, while to its north-east, it regularly bombs Syrian targets, whose President Bashar al-Assad is deeply intertwined with Iran. Saudi Arabia is involved in an air campaign against the Iranian-financed Houthis in Yemen, while supporting anti-Assad Sunni rebel groups in Syria.

US relationship with Middle East allies unlikely to suffer

Other countries in the region have also begun to distance themselves from the Palestinian cause, often in favour of maintaining relations with the US. In a sign of both low expectations and a desire to appease the Trump administration, several key members of the OIC, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, sent their foreign ministers to the summit instead of their heads of state. In the lead-up to Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned Trump against “complicating matters” in the region, but he, like his Saudi counterpart, is unlikely to make any attempt to counter the move. Egypt, whose relations with the US soured after the coup in July 2013, is now considered a strong American ally, with Presidents Trump and Sisi showering each other with praise. Last month, Sisi stated that security in the Middle East had increased under Trump.

Even Turkey, who remains a US ally despite the coup of 2016, has threatened no definitive action against America. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who hosted the OIC summit in Ankara, diddescribe the US as complicit in the violence in occupied Palestine, but like most Arab leaders, reserved most of his anger for Israel, labeling it a “terror state” and threatening to cut off ties completely.

Although President Trump’s move to declare Jerusalem as the Israeli capital has rightly been seen as a gift to Israel, it is not without calculation. Reaction, while heated, has been uniformly rhetorical, with most anger directed at Israel itself and the US receiving the expected boilerplate responses. Allies of the US in the Middle East are unlikely to risk their relationship with President Trump in support of a peace process that has widely been considered a fantasy for many years. President Trump and Jared Kushner, his point man on Israel-Palestine, understand that the peace process is effectively dead in its current form, and are gambling that taking the highly contentious Jerusalem issue off the table might, ironically, open the door for a settlement down the line.

Although evidence suggests that Arab leaders believe that the Palestinian issue is becoming a lost cause, with Iran evolving into the real threat, their outlook may not reflect popular sentiment at home. Support for a pro-Palestinian two-state solution remains overwhelmingly popular across the Middle East, and leaders will have to tread carefully as they begin to accept that such a deal becomes less likely.

 

This article first ran on Global Risk Insights, and was written by Aaron Noonan.