Day: November 20, 2017

Something or nothing

Two of my favorite commentators on the Middle East differ diametrically about the impact on the Palestinians of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel motivated by common enmity towards Iran. Hussein Ibish says the Saudi moves are unavoidable and will inevitably benefit the Palestinians, one way or another. Ibrahim Fraihat says the Saudi moves will end the Arab boycott of Israel and hurt the Palestinian national cause. Both agree the Saudis will have to get something for the Palestinians to make it possible to proceed in improving relations with Israel, but beyond that they differ. Who is right?

Ibrahim thinks the necessary something will be tactical–prisoner releases, financial assistance, and possibly a settlement freeze outside the larger settlement blocks–while Israel will gain the strategic objective of normalizing relations with Arab countries. Ibrahim also thinks the Saudi moves will make reconciliation of Palestine’s two major factions–Fatah and Hamas–more complicated and difficult.

Hussein thinks that something will be better than nothing, which is what the Palestinians have been getting for years. He also assumes the Israeli gains will be limited to things like civil aviation cooperation, not the broader gains Ibrahim assumes. Besides, the Palestinians have little choice but to play along with whatever President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, comes up with.

Who is right depends on what the Americans are cooking. Ibrahim is right that the “outside/in” approach they are apparently pursuing fragments the Arab peace initiative the Saudis have advocated for more than 15 years. Instead of one big bang solution, Palestinian statehood in exchange for normalization, the process would be broken into smaller, reciprocal steps leading inevitably to the same end. Hussein views this as an advantage, not a disadvantage. After all, the Arab peace plan has gone no place for a long time. Motion in the right direction, if sustained, leads inevitably to the right goal.

I’m not sure the Americans are cooking much, at least for the immediate future. The initial steps could in fact be very small and reversible, which is perhaps more important. The key to sustaining them is something we’ll see little of in public, though it was glimpsed last week in an interview with an Israeli general published in the Kingdom: security cooperation. If Saudi Arabia and Israel find mutual advantage in sharing intelligence about their common adversary, it could lead to broader security cooperation.

That however is where and when advantages to the Palestinians might evaporate. The Israelis will aim for the kind of security relationship they have with Egypt and Jordan: one in which the Arab countries gain so much to benefit their own security that they will hesitate to do anything their benefactor opposes, including support for a Palestine worthy of being called a state.

Palestine will need far more internal cohesion and fortitude than it has today to resist the pressures that could descend on it in the future. The Palestinians have been fortunate that the Israelis have been cool to the Arab peace initiative. That has meant Ramallah did not need to worry much about what kind of state the Israelis would accept. But a fragmented version of the initiative–Hussein says that version is called “concurrence” in the trade–presents greater need for foresight, good judgment, and coherence. Ibrahim could be right in the end, even if Hussein is right for now.


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