Trump’s Mideast strat­egy breaks new ground with Is­rael, Gulf states

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

De­spite re­gional tur­moil, Pres­i­dent Trump’s grand Mid­dle East strat­egy to unite Is­rael with the Saudis and other Gulf Arab pow­ers against Iran and lay the ground­work for a com­pre­hen­sive Is­raeliPales­tinian peace deal is mak­ing un­ex­pected progress away from the lime­light.

The lat­est sign: Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s unan­nounced trip to Oman, the first by an Is­raeli leader in more than two decades. That visit has been fol­lowed by a string of other over­tures Is­rael has made to­ward Gulf Arab states, in­clud­ing an­other taboo-break­ing pub­lic ap­pear­ance in the United Arab Emi­rates by Is­raeli Cul­ture and Sport Min­is­ter Miri Regev.

The flurry of diplo­matic ac­tiv­ity with Arab pow­ers that tra­di­tion­ally avoid overt deal­ings with Is­rael has “been good for the op­tic for both Ne­tanyahu and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion,” ad­ver­tis­ing the fact that “rel­e­vant re­gional peace part­ners are in place to sup­port a pos­si­ble new Is­raeli-Pales­tinian ‘deal’ be­fore it is be­ing launched,” said Assaf Orion, a former Is­rael De­fense Forces gen­eral and vis­it­ing fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

Mr. Ne­tanyahu’s visit to Oman, which bor­ders Saudi Ara­bia and has of­ten played the role of re­gional me­di­a­tor with Iran, could be crit­i­cal to Mr. Trump’s push to iso­late Tehran after the U.S. with­drawal from the 2015 Iran nu­clear ac­cord. The Arab states could put be­hind-the-scenes pres­sure on the Pales­tini­ans to ac­cept the much-an­tic­i­pated peace deal be­ing put to­gether by White House aide and pres­i­den­tial son-in-law Jared Kush­ner.

“The sym­bol­ism of what the Is­raelis are do­ing is key,” said Brian Kat­ulis, a Mid­dle East an­a­lyst with the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress think tank. “The [Ne­tanyahu] visit sig­naled to Iran that Is­rael is quite in­ter­ested in de­vel­op­ing ties with Iran’s neigh­bors in a way that could fur­ther the cause of Trump’s cam­paign of max­i­mum pres­sure against Tehran.”

The over­tures have caught the at­ten­tion of the regime in Tehran and hard-line Pales­tinian el­e­ments. An ar­ti­cle this week on Mr. Ne­tanyahu’s Oman visit in the con­ser­va­tive Ira­nian news­pa­per Kay­han, said to be close to the supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, car­ried the head­line, “Arab Rulers Stab­bing Pales­tini­ans in the Back.” The ar­ti­cle quoted the Pales­tinian Ha­mas rad­i­cal group as warn­ing that the visit could have “grave reper­cus­sions on the Pales­tini­ans and their just cause.”

By con­trast, Ja­son Green­blatt, Mr. Trump’s Mid­dle East envoy, hailed Mr. Ne­tanyahu’s trip on Twit­ter as a ma­jor boost to U.S. pol­icy in the re­gion.

“This is a help­ful step for our peace ef­forts and& es­sen­tial to cre­ate an at­mos­phere of sta­bil­ity, se­cu­rity and pros­per­ity be­tween Is­raelis, Pales­tini­ans and their neigh­bors. Look­ing for­ward to see­ing more meet­ings like this!” Mr. Green­blatt tweeted.

The flurry of Is­raeli diplo­macy may be all the more per­ti­nent amid the diplo­matic cri­sis sparked by the ap­par­ent killing Oct. 2 in Turkey of U.S.-based Saudi dis­si­dent writer Ja­mal Khashoggi.

Mr. Trump’s over­all strat­egy to­ward the re­gion has de­pended heav­ily on the es­tab­lish­ment of stronger re­la­tions be­tween Is­rael and Saudi Ara­bia. But Riyadh’s re­li­a­bil­ity as a part­ner ca­pa­ble of bring­ing other Gulf pow­ers on board has been thrown into ques­tion amid al­le­ga­tions that Mr. Khashoggi was killed on or­ders from the high­est lev­els of the Saudi royal fam­ily.

“With the Saudis seem­ingly side­lined, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is now look­ing to Oman, know­ing that the Omanis have this sort of neu­tral role as a po­ten­tial me­di­a­tor,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a re­gional an­a­lyst at the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies.

“If things looked like they were po­ten­tially go­ing to stall on the whole push for a nor­mal­iza­tion be­tween Is­rael and the Arab world, the idea is that you could have Omanis take on the role of try­ing to ad­vance this nor­mal­iza­tion and also openly em­brace the idea of the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian peace process.”

Out in the open

Mr. Ne­tanyahu long boasted of warm­ing ties with key Arab states that have no diplo­matic re­la­tions with Is­rael. But those ties — still largely un­pop­u­lar among the Arab pub­lic — have rarely been ac­knowl­edged so pub­licly.

That changed when the con­ser­va­tive Is­raeli leader sud­denly ap­peared in Oman with a del­e­ga­tion that in­cluded his wife, his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, his for­eign min­istry di­rec­tor and the head of Mos­sad, Is­rael’s in­tel­li­gence agency. The group was met by long­time Omani Sul­tan Qa­boos bin Said.

“These were im­por­tant talks, both for the state of Is­rael and very im­por­tant talks for Is­rael’s se­cu­rity,” Mr. Ne­tanyahu told his Cabi­net af­ter­ward. “There will be more.”

As he spoke, the re­gion was watch­ing an­other sub­tle Is­raeli move. Ms. Regev, the Is­raeli cul­ture min­is­ter, was in the United Arab Emi­rates at a judo tour­na­ment to par­take in a scene that would have seemed un­think­able just weeks ago: An Is­raeli Cabi­net min­is­ter, tears of joy fill­ing her eyes, was proudly singing her coun­try’s na­tional an­them at a sports event in the heart of the Arab world.

Ms. Regev also toured the grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Wear­ing a loosely wrapped head­scarf and the tra­di­tional floor-length gown known as an abaya, she was warmly wel­comed by lo­cal of­fi­cials.

Oman as me­di­a­tor?

It re­mains to be seen how Oman — an anom­aly among the Gulf Arab pow­ers that also has healthy re­la­tions with Iran — feels about the prospect of align­ing with Is­rael, the U.S. and Saudi Ara­bia against Tehran.

But when it comes to the Is­raeli-Pales­tinian is­sue, and the more ba­sic mat­ter of rec­og­niz­ing Is­rael’s ex­is­tence as a le­git­i­mate na­tion, the Omanis seem poised to take on a lead­er­ship role in the wake of Mr. Ne­tanyahu’s visit.

Omani For­eign Min­is­ter Yusuf bin Alawi bin Ab­dul­lah made in­ter­na­tional head­lines after the visit by de­scrib­ing Is­rael as an ac­cepted Mid­dle East na­tion.

“Is­rael is a state present in the re­gion, and we all un­der­stand this,” he said. “The world is also aware of this fact, and maybe it is time for Is­rael to be treated the same and also bear the same obli­ga­tions.”

A For­eign Min­istry state­ment this week as­serted that the sul­tanate now “sup­ports any sin­cere ef­fort which may con­trib­ute to pro­vid­ing a con­ducive en­vi­ron­ment to re­sume peace ef­forts and ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the Is­raeli and Pales­tinian sides to reach a fair, com­pre­hen­sive and bal­anced so­lu­tion.”

But the Omanis have also long po­si­tioned them­selves as de­fend­ers of Pales­tinian rights. Days be­fore the Ne­tanyahu visit, the Omani sul­tan re­ceived Pales­tinian leader Mah­moud Ab­bas for a visit in Mus­cat, Oman’s cap­i­tal. Also, the For­eign Min­istry state­ment in­sisted that “the Pales­tinian peo­ple have suf­fered and are still suf­fer­ing a lot to get their le­git­i­mate rights.”

Trump’s plan

The Is­raeli-Pales­tinian con­flict is an emo­tional is­sue with the Arab pub­lic, and re­la­tions will likely re­main lim­ited with­out a peace agree­ment.

Is­raeli forces have killed over 160 Pales­tini­ans dur­ing months of Ha­masled protests in the Gaza Strip against an Is­raeli block­ade and a deep­en­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis. The peace process has been frozen for years, and Mr. Ab­bas cut ties with Wash­ing­ton after the White House rec­og­nized Jerusalem as Is­rael’s cap­i­tal last year and moved its em­bassy to the city.

The Pales­tini­ans fear the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to rally sup­port from Saudi Ara­bia and other Gulf states in order to pres­sure them into ac­cept­ing a peace plan that falls far short of their de­mands.


Sul­tan Qa­boos (left) re­ceives Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu in Mus­cat, Oman. A sur­prise visit to Oman by Mr. Ne­tanyahu ap­pears to have opened the flood­gates for a se­ries of ap­pear­ances by se­nior Is­raeli of­fi­cials in Gulf Arab states.

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