Exclusive: US planning Israeli-Palestinian-Gulf peace summit, sources say

No event has been formally planned, and additional sources from both Israel and the US denied that a summit was the purpose of a recent flurry of American diplomatic activity in the region.

March 28, 2017 23:10
3 minute read.
Netanyahu Abbas

PM Netanyahu and President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, 2010. (photo credit: GPO)

WASHINGTON – Members of the Trump administration are exploring whether to host a landmark conference over the summer that would bring Gulf Arab leaders, the Palestinian Authority president and Israel’s prime minister onto the same stage for the first time, sources tell The Jerusalem Post.

US officials are quietly gauging interest in the event, according to the Israeli sources, who requested anonymity in order to respect their relationships with the new administration.

No event has been formally planned, and additional sources from both Israel and the US deny that a summit is the purpose of a recent flurry of American diplomatic activity in the region. But several discussed the idea as a concrete goal of an administration seeking a momentous foreign policy victory.

“The president wants to bring them over – a public event with them,” one senior Israeli source told the Post on Tuesday. “I think its feasible, but the question is what happens after.”
Nikki Haley discusses US commitment to two-state solution on Feb. 16, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)

As a precondition to the conference set by Arab participants, Israel would have to agree and adhere to an informal, unspoken freeze on future housing construction outside of established settlement blocs, said the official.

Discussions over a construction pause – which would not be characterized publicly as a “settlement freeze” – are already well under way. But four days of meetings last week led by Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, and Yoav Horowitz, chief of staff to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were inconclusive.

“About half of their time” together was devoted to the issue of settlements and no agreement was reached on freezing construction, an American source said.

Traveling to Amman for this week’s Arab League Summit, Greenblatt said “the time has come to make a deal” and that Trump believes an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement “will reverberate positively throughout the region and the world.”

If such a summit were to take place, leadership at the crown prince level from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states would join their Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts beside Israelis in front of cameras – an unprecedented television moment that Trump would savor. But Israeli and Arab figures are questioning what the summit would accomplish in hard policy terms, and some White House officials are questioning the proposal as well.

Israeli officials are torn between the certain benefits and potential costs of a summit.

They believe that public engagement with Riyadh and its regional partners would be a major diplomatic achievement – the result of years of quiet talks over Iran and its regional activities. But some officials are particularly nervous that a conference teasing the promise of peace talks would raise Palestinian expectations – a moment of hope that would quickly be dashed when direct negotiations invariably fail to take off.

“It can lead to an intifada if we don’t have a plan for afterwards,” a second official suggested. “Both Abu Mazen [Abbas] and Netanyahu will show up, but neither is likely to come with deliverables.”

One senior Trump administration official told the Post the US simply is not working toward a specific event. “The administration is concentrating on building relationships with parties in the region,” the official said. “We’re just not contemplating such a conference at this time.”

Trump has spoken passionately of his desire to broker Middle East peace and of his interest in a broader regional rapprochement among Israelis and Arabs. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top adviser, has consulted with several Gulf leaders on how best to proceed with a peace process incorporating regional players.

“Trump said at his press conference that he wants a settlements slowdown, and he talked about the outside-in approach using the regionals. So this is not that far of a jump,” said one former State Department official involved in Middle East peace issues. “One plus one equals two.”

Arab world leaders are expected to visit Washington in April and May. Those visits may lay the groundwork for a summit, sources said.

Republicans in Washington are echoing Israel’s cautious optimism over the idea. Fresh off a visit to Lebanon, Israel and Jordan last week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) cautioned Trump against moving too fast.

“The timing for a splashy, high-profile, new set of negotiations does not seem to be right,” Cotton told the Post, questioning the stability of the Palestinian Authority. “Quiet, confidence- building measures might be appropriate.”

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