Since taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants to strike a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Details about his on-again, off-again peace plan are sparse. Washington recently unveiled the economic component of its vision, which will be discussed at the Peace to Prosperity workshop in Bahrain this week. But neither the Israeli government nor the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) will be there.
What do the countries involved think of the latest attempt to resolve one of the world’s thorniest diplomatic challenges?
If there is one thing that the Palestinian leadership and the people agree on, it is that the unreleased U.S. peace plan should be rejected on sight and that Palestinians should not participate in the economic workshop the United States is organizing in Bahrain.
If the issues of Jerusalem, refugee return, and sovereignty are off the table, Palestinians say that there can be no peace and that the United States has disqualified itself as a neutral broker. They point out how Washington’s economic vision talks about supporting Palestinians’ “ambitions” rather than their national aspirations. What’s more, it fails to address the root cause of Palestine’s economic woes—the persistence of Israel’s military occupation. They do not believe that the United States wants to support Palestinian development, given that Washington has ended all economic assistance to Palestine. If U.S. and Israeli sanctions continue, the Palestinian Authority will be unable to pay its employees, including its security forces, and the government may collapse by July or August 2019.
Though Palestinian leaders say they are boycotting the workshop, the U.S. administration actually chose to bypass official Palestinian representatives in favor of the private sector. A few may attend, but the vast majority of Palestinian business leaders and investors, claiming to account for four-fifths of the occupied Palestinian territories’ gross domestic product, won’t go to Bahrain. The way to unlock Palestine’s economic potential, they say, is not by way of dollars or riyals, but instead by ending the occupation and allowing people and goods to move freely.
Zaha Hassan, Visiting Fellow, Middle East Program
The biggest winner in the new peace plan would be Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Trump administration has gone far beyond previous U.S. administrations in its overt support for Israel. This is clear from its peace team, which includes Jared Kushner, a close family friend of Netanyahu, and Ambassador David Friedman, a longtime donor to Israeli settlements.
But Netanyahu faces a political crisis at home. On May 30, 2019, he failed to form a government. This triggered another round of elections to be held September 17, 2019, two weeks before his pre-indictment hearings on corruption charges. The Trump team is unlikely to release the full plan before those elections.
If the plan comes out earlier and is rejected by the Palestinians, that would accelerate Netanyahu’s plan to annex some or all of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, with the Trump administration’s blessing. Trump has already given Netanyahu more than he could have expected—moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, cutting all U.S. assistance to Palestinians, and dismantling the PLO office in Washington.
But while the Israeli political machine has been steadily chipping away at the prospects for peace, the Israeli people are not yet fully on board. Nearly twice as many Israelis support a two-state solution compared to those who support a one-state solution. Grassroots groups are actively committed to a peaceful resolution to the conflict. On June 5, the U.S. Congress announced its intention to fund those coexistence efforts.
Sarah Yerkes, Fellow, Middle East Program
Despite hints of a Saudi opening toward Israel from Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in 2018, Riyadh’s position toward Palestine has not radically changed. King Salman Bin Abdulaziz, has increased Saudi financial assistance for the Palestinians, and he constantly reiterates the country’s unwavering support. The crown prince reportedly stated the same position in February 2019.
For religious reasons, Muslim nations would condemn any Saudi embrace of a peace plan that recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Some would use such a development to challenge the kingdom’s status in the Muslim world. To accept Trump’s peace plan would also add more fuel to the fire among Saudi circles angered by the social and political changes in the Kingdom.
Yet Riyadh can’t afford to reject Washington’s proposal outright. The king will likely keep doubling down on support to the Palestinians, while avoiding actions that jeopardize relations with the United States or undermine growing security cooperation with Israel. Israel is the key to continued U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and for tougher policies against Iran.
By joining U.S. diplomatic efforts and attending the Bahrain workshop with several other countries, Saudi Arabia will be able to mask its interactions with Israel in a haze of expanding Arab-Israeli ties and pass the burden of rejecting the peace plan to the Palestinian Authority. The king has said that he will follow the Palestinians’ lead, “accepting what they would accept and rejecting what they would reject.”
Yasmine Farouk, Visiting Fellow, Middle East Program
Egypt is expected to play an important part in the Trump plan. Reportedly, it would be asked to host an economic zone for Palestinians in northern Sinai, next to Gaza. While that might seem like a harmless idea, and one that could bring generous aid from the Gulf, it would be difficult for Cairo to accept.
First, providing greater access from Gaza is a security nightmare. Egypt has an ongoing battle with extremist groups in northern Sinai and would not want them resupplied from Gaza. Second, Cairo has long resisted taking on more responsibility for the welfare of Palestinians in Gaza, where repeated clashes between Hamas and Israel tend to destroy whatever is achieved. Third, Egyptian soldiers died to regain Sinai from Israel, and Egyptian citizens are highly sensitive to any suggestion that their country might give away part of the territory. Sisi’s surrender of two small islands to Saudi Arabia in 2016 caused public protests and anger even within elite circles.
Sisi is eager to preserve his warm relationship with Trump and will play along as best he can with peace efforts including by taking part in the Bahrain meeting. But he might well hope that Trump’s touted “deal of the century” withers on the vine. As soon as the Sinai aspect of the deal was leaked in early June, Sisi quickly reassured an Egyptian audience that “nobody can do anything that you do not want. Can you imagine that I would ever let go of our rights? Why would I do that?”
Michele Dunne, Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program
The economic part of the U.S. peace plan appears to mistakenly assume that Palestinians’ political aspirations can be traded for financial incentives and that the two-state solution may be abandoned. That would be detrimental to Jordan.
If there is no Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and if the Israelis do not want areas under their control to have a Palestinian majority, Jordan fears the solution might come at its expense. Either Israel could annex the parts of the West Bank it wants and expect Jordan to deal with the rest, or Israel could force Palestinians to emigrate over time—mostly to Jordan.
Faced with such an existential threat, Jordan is in no position to accept the deal, despite pressure from the United States to attend the Bahrain workshop. In essence, Amman faces two bad options. It can join the conference, thereby diluting its own position. Or Jordan can decline to go and risk angering the United States, an ally it is heavily dependent on politically and economically.
Both options are possible, although any Jordanian participation is likely to be low level and would be used to highlight the negative effects such a deal would have on the country. In the case of any U.S. anger, Jordan will probably solicit the help of an understanding Congress, as well as several departments within the U.S. administration, most notably the Pentagon and the CIA.
Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies
Although 600,000 Israelis originate from Morocco, Rabat tends to keep its business and security links to Israel quiet. The king has a largely ceremonial role as the chair of the Al Quds Committee, which seeks to maintain Arab claims to Jerusalem.
Historically, Morocco has been a minor player, but it is becoming more notable for two reasons: U.S.-Morocco relations and the Western Sahara conflict. Officially, Morocco supports the two-state solution. But establishing formal relations with Israel and supporting the new U.S. peace plan would let Rabat gain favor with Washington. The leadership might be tempted to endorse the plan if given the right offer: international recognition of its sovereignty claims over the Western Sahara. Given Kushner’s recent trip to Morocco, Rabat may rightly believe that the Trump administration is willing to accept a quid pro quo for public Arab support for the peace plan.
In agreeing to attend the workshop, Morocco is likely balancing the benefits of closer ties with the Trump administration against the domestic political fallout of supporting a plan that is likely to harm Palestinian interests. The Arab-Israeli conflict and Palestinian rights have consistently been an important popular issue in Morocco, but the country’s leadership may bet that younger generations will not be as galvanized by the Palestinian cause if they are offered the right incentives.
Intissar Fakir, Fellow, Middle East Program, and Editor in Chief, Sada
Not long ago, Europe aspired to play a pivotal diplomatic role in the Middle East. After the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, the European Union’s (EU) then foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton negotiated extensively (though secretly) in the region. The first official visit of her successor, Federica Mogherini, was to Israel and the Palestinian territories. She called for the creation of a Palestinian state within five years and announced that the EU intended to play a more influential role in the Middle East. She also named one of the EU’s most skilled diplomats—Fernando Gentilini, who had negotiated the Serbia-Kosovo agreement—as EU special envoy to the Middle East.
Yet today, the EU’s role in the Middle East is at an all-time low. Its influence has faded since the United States withdrew unilaterally from the Iran deal, which had been a major joint accomplishment. The EU’s inability to keep the Iran deal alive, the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, and Kushner’s plan to stop short of calling for a Palestinian state all show that the EU’s sway in the Middle East is now minimal.
Federiga Bindi, Nonresident Scholar, Europe Program
The prospect of new Israeli elections in September has disrupted the timing of Trump’s Middle East peace plan. The U.S. administration had already announced the June workshop in Bahrain when this news broke, and Washington is intent on following through. But it is hard to see how diplomacy can progress further. Launching a peace plan during an Israeli election campaign makes no sense. And once the new Israeli government takes office, the U.S. election campaign will be well under way, leaving the Trump administration little room to maneuver.
The looming Israeli elections may have given the U.S. administration a face-saving exit ramp. Palestinians are deeply opposed to Trump’s so-called “deal of the century.” Whether or not Washington opts to shelve the plan after the Bahrain gathering, the administration could still face a major decision on how to respond to Israeli annexation in the West Bank. Such a step by Israel will certainly provoke a harsh Palestinian reaction and would have significant implications for the future.
Jake Walles, Nonresident Fellow, Middle East Program
Correction: Graphic updated June 25 to reflect last-minute additions of representatives from China and Russia