Rising concerns over regional impact as US moves away from two-state solution

Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said that if the Trump administration kills the idea of a two-state solution, it had “misread the power dynamics in the region badly.”
Sunday 31/03/2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the House Appropriations Committee’s State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee in Washington, March 27. (AFP)
New ‘parameters.’ US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies before the House Appropriations Committee’s State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee in Washington, March 27. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Wariness is growing in Washington about potential effects in the Middle East that could be caused by the Trump administration's drifting away from the two-state-solution between Palestinians and Israelis.

The conjecture could only be amplified by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's suggestion that US President Donald Trump’s administration planned to abandon existing US policy understandings regarding the future of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Talking to Congress March 27, Pompeo signalled the administration's intention to move away from "the parameters that were largely at hand in the discussions before and they led us where we are today -- no resolution."

His statement came in answer to a question whether the United States would stick with such policy underpinnings on the issues of borders, mutual recognition, settlements and refugees.

“I’m very confident that what was tried before failed and I’m optimistic that what we’re doing will give us a better likelihood that we’ll achieve the outcomes that would be better for both the people of Israel and the Palestinian people as well,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo refused several times to say whether the Trump administration planned to stick with the United States’ support of a two-state solution. He testified about Trump’s proposed budget before the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee.

Experts said they are concerned that the end of the two-state objective could lead to more extremist activity in the Middle East, especially if Iran and Hezbollah choose to use it to stir anti-Israel and anti-US sentiment.

“I think they’re going to destroy the remnants of the Oslo agreement and the remnants of a two-state solution,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “I don’t think it is on the table at all. I think what’s on the table now is what [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu has described as ‘state-minus,’ which is not going to be good enough for anyone.”

Netanyahu said Israel would not give up control of territory west of the Jordan River.

This, in combination with Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the closure of the Palestinian office in Washington and perceived heavy support of Netanyahu just before Israeli elections, has many concerned that the administration will not work towards a two-state solution.

The White House has not released its peace plan for the region. Pompeo, when asked when it would be announced, joked: “I think we can say in less than 20 years.” The plan is expected in April from Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser.

Pompeo called the recognition of the Golan Heights “the right thing to do.”

Democrats called him out, with US Representative David Price, a Democrat from North Carolina, raising the issue later March 27.

“The US should be in the business of fostering dialogue, peace and stability in the Middle East -- not worsening tensions and suffering,” he said on social media. “The Trump admin can no longer claim to be an honest broker for a Middle East peace deal -- they’ve undercut Palestinians at every turn.”

Aaron Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Centre in Washington, said “Israel is the wrong place to start” with a peace plan because negotiations must “hold up the hope that there will be satisfaction of Palestinian national aspirations.”

Otherwise, he said, prospects for cooperation between Arab countries and Israel could fall apart.

“This has little to do with us and everything to do with the changing dynamic in the region,” said Miller, who served as an adviser to six secretaries of state in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The rise of Iran and violent jihadism has brought “functional cooperation” among Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, he said, including sharing security and intelligence.

“The Golan probably didn’t help,” he said. “That probably won’t help Mr Kushner’s peace plan.”

He cited the Gaza War in 2014 as an example of the Arab world’s willingness not to step in between Israel and the Palestinians.

Still, he said, it’s not enough.

“Yes, you do have functional cooperation but you don’t have what is required to go very much beyond that,” he said.

Ibish agreed.

“There has been tremendous convergence,” he said, “but there remains the occupation. No one has found a way to deal with that.”

He said that if the Trump administration kills the idea of a two-state solution, it had “misread the power dynamics in the region badly.”

“Anyone who believes the Saudis can deliver the Palestinians is mistaken,” said Ibish.

It’s politically risky for Arab countries to support Israel out-loud, he said, and there’s a question of the difference between Arab and Israeli values.

“It’s underappreciated but it’s real,” Ibish said. “They’re not value-free people. They are human beings.”

There’s also a strategic problem.

“The fact is this is an issue of great volatility in the region and it can erupt at any moment, reminding them there are enemies in the region -- Iran, Hezbollah, [the Islamic State] ISIS -- who get a big benefit from the occupation and the fact that it’s not resolved. They can score big points without doing anything. You just shout in the megaphone.”

The Arab countries are aware of this, he said.

“They’d at least like to take the batteries out of the megaphone,” Ibish said.

He added that the current Israeli government would not hear these messages.

“They see no need to give anything to the Palestinians,” he said.

 The Trump administration's stances regarding the Palestinians are not helping. “Totally cutting off the PLO is an impossible situation," he said.

"The least harm [the administration] can do is to never release the Kushner plan.”

He continued: “This is what you get when you put people who are passionate about the issue but know nothing about the issue in charge of the issue.”

Retired Israeli Major-General Amos Gilead, executive director of Israel’s Institute for Policy and Strategy, called it an “unprecedented achievement” that Arab Sunni countries “who have tried again and again to destroy us have become our strategic partners.”

“You can do a lot while denying it,” he said during a session about "Sunni-Israeli alliances" March 25 at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington.

However, the alliances are built more on common enemies than any deep desire to be friends, he said. They’ve worked on border security with Jordan, which officially looks like an agreement between Jordan and Iraq, he said.

While obvious change may not be apparent, cooperation between some Arab nations and Israel moves quietly through underground commitments for security, agreements for water and electricity projects and even meetings between heads of state.

And as they continue without major pushback from the population, there’s been the possibility -- albeit small -- that a Palestinian-Israeli solution could come through a back door.

Conventional thinking says that the only way for Israel to work with the Arab world is by solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue, said Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli minister of regional cooperation.

“We believe it’s the other way around,” he said. “We believe they have to get around Arab countries wanting Israel to disappear.”

As an example, Hanegbi talked about the “Red-Dead” project.

The multibillion-dollar project pipes water from the Red Sea to a desalination centre in Jordan’s port of Aqaba. Brine created by the desalination process would be moved to the Dead Sea, which has been shrinking. Each country is to pledge $40 million per year for ten years, Hanegbi said.

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” he said.

As another example, Hanegbi said Saudi Arabia allows Air India to fly in its airspace with a direct flight from Israel to India.

Still, Hanegbi said he sees as negative the Obama administration's Iran nuclear deal, which Trump pulled the United States out of, Hezbollah growing more powerful in Lebanon and “getting ready for a future confrontation” and the instability of Jordan. He agreed with the Trump administration’s plan so far.

Hanegbi said it’s good to let Hezbollah “know how committed we are” and that Israel attacked 1,000 targets in Syria for that reason: to send a message to Iran.

Barbara Leaf, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), said there are “clear, public indicators not of normalisation, as such, but normalcy.”

Leaf served as US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014-18.

In the past, Egypt and other countries shaped public policy around “the notion of Israel as enemy,” she said.

That’s changed as the Middle East has shifted because “you don’t have a singularity of government views on threats,” she said. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain see Iran as the enemy. Egypt doesn’t see Iran as its biggest threat and others don’t see it as a threat at all.

Technology has also changed sentiment towards Israel -- both positively and negatively -- as people have access to information through the internet, which has changed priorities, Leaf said.

She quoted WINEP polling expert David Pollock as saying opinion surveys consistently indicate that two-thirds of people in the region say they support a two-state solution and three-quarters would like the Palestinians and Israelis to take a fresh look at the problem and a small percentage express support for Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Middle East governments, excluding Iran, have no real appetite for war with Israel, she said, while at the same time they want to know “what’s in it for us” before reaching any unofficial agreements with Israel.

“The Palestinian issue is still that wild card out there,” she said.