By Andrew Clark
After a whirlwind tour of Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Trump is promoting an audacious Middle East peace plan rooted in the common interest that ostensibly mortal enemies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, have in combating the rising power of Iran in the region.
It’s a modern version of the ancient proverb: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
But in a region where conflict, assassination, intrigue, double-talk, and sudden switches in allegiance, are as common as playing sport in Australia, the much trumped new Middle East peace “deal” may prove to be little more than a convenient cover for closer relations between Saudi Arabia, which acts as custodian of Islam’s most sacred sites, and Israel, the Jewish state.
But it could also, possibly, lead to the first real engagement between Israelis and Palestinians in 17 years.
Apart from a mutual common interest in opposing rising Iranian power, both Saudi Arabia and Israel are close allies of the US, and this is where the “Trump Plan” comes in.
But the Middle East, like the burnt out wrecks of military equipment scattered throughout the region, is also littered with the wrecks of peace plans that followed the six-day war between Israel and Arab states half a century ago.
The sheer audacity of the Trump plan, and the chutzpah he has employed to promote it, seems to have at least punctured the cycle of despair that has long characterised the issue.
According to Jeremy Jones, director of international affairs with the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, it’s “impossible to tell at this stage how prospective the Trump plan is”.
“What we do know is that a circuit-breaker was required,” he says. “An unconventional approach can make people reconsider the way they have been dealing with the problem. I have seen more encouraging signs.”
Anglican Bishop George Browning, president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, is less hopeful. While it was “good that President Trump visited both leaders of Israel and Palestine on their own turf and offered to help with peace negotiations between the two, nothing he said while in the Middle East, Israel or Palestine sheds any light on how he might achieve peace and on what terms.”
A more neutral view is provided by Anthony Bubalo, research director for the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a former diplomat, and a specialist in Saudi Arabian and Israeli affairs for almost 30 years. Bubalo paints on the canvas of Middle Eastern realpolitik, so the first stroke concerns motivation. “It’s clear that Trump is intent of reviving the Palestinian peace process,” Bubalo says, before adding: “The question is why?”
A “possible explanation,” which increases the chances of “reviving the process” but less so for securing lasting peace, is that the Saudis and Israelis need “cover” for establishing closer relations between the two states, while the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel are united in loathing Iran.
The Palestinians and Saudis have been “assiduous” in cultivating better relations with the Trump administration behind the scenes. At the same time Trump has been outspoken in his support of the hard right coalition government in Israel headed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
“Trump sees himself as the deal-maker,” Bubalo says. “Every US president since Jimmy Carter has thought they could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and given it as least one go. It may be that Trump does genuinely believe he can do this,.”
It’s a tall ask. According to the Israeli-based Peace Now movement, Israel has increased its rate of establishing settlements in the Occupied Territories by 34 per cent this year and 70 per cent of these “new starts” are beyond the “Geneva Initiative” border – a notional line separating any future Palestinian state from Israel.
Further, some elements in the Palestinian side remain tainted with the stigma of wanting to ultimately destroy the Jewish state.
However, an insouciant Trump breezed into Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, and addressed a remarkable gathering of the leaders of Muslim-majority states from the Middle East, west Asia and North Africa about the twin needs for peace and to combat terrorism.
He managed over less than 18 months to switch from inflammatory US presidential-candidate campaign rhetoric about a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” to a rousing Riyadh rendition of “this is a not a battle between different faiths”.
Trump “walked back the anti-Muslim rhetoric of his campaign and seems to have discovered something called the Palestinians,” according to Roger Cohen, a columnist with the New York Times. He then spent 27 hours in Israel and on the West Bank talking to Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Bubalo points out,it’s “not a gift” of the American President to secure a peace that must be negotiated between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the 17 years since US President Bill Clinton ultimately failed to mediate a second series of Camp David Accords (the first was secured by Carter in 1978), “prospects have gotten worse and worse and the political leadership on both aides are further apart than they were”.
All the conditions for striking a deal, including Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the militant Hamas group in the Gaza Strip, “are worse than they were”, according to Bubalo.
“It’s really a question of are the two sides willing to strike a deal, and I don’t think they are,” he says. “[However] it doesn’t mean that neither side will be willing to explore the current circumstances.”
As Bubalo acknowledges, there are “seemingly contradictory things that happen in the Middle East”.