US Secretary of State John Kerry’s outline for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was generally welcomed among the moderate Arab Sunni states whose support would be essential to buttress a negotiated solution.
But the official responses in Cairo, Riyadh and Amman seemed calculated to make an impression on the incoming Trump administration rather than to impel any immediate or urgent follow- up on the Kerry proposals. That is not expected given that Kerry and President Barack Obama have only three weeks left in office and Donald Trump has signaled there will be a friendlier approach toward the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Now, with the imminent change in the White House, Kerry’s noble
views may very well remain a small footnote in the history books,” The Jordan Times wrote in an editorial Thursday.
Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are to some extent groping in the dark, uncertain about what Trump policies that will impact strongly on their futures will look like. By giving essentially positive responses to Kerry’s proposals, Egypt and Saudi Arabia “are trying to show they are pro-peace, useful and very relevant as mediators and mainstays of the process and trying also to anticipate what the new administration in Washington wishes to do,” says Gabriel Ben-Dor, a Middle East specialist at the University of Haifa.
The countries also have their sites set on being relevant in advance of the January 15 conference bringing together some 70 foreign ministers in Paris whose goal is to reaffirm the necessity of a two-state solution.
Kerry specified that a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should include: secure and recognized international borders between Israel and a viable and contiguous Palestinian state based on the armistice line that separated Israel and the West Bank before the 1967 war, with mutually agreed land swaps; a “just, agreed, fair and realistic solution” to the Palestinian refugee issue; Jerusalem as the internationally recognized capital of the two states; one Jewish and one Arab state, with mutual recognition and full and equal rights for all their respective citizens.
As Tel Aviv University Middle East scholar Bruce Maddy-Weitzman notes, close scrutiny of Cairo and Riyadh’s reactions to Kerry indicate that neither Arab country has the sense of urgency that Kerry conveyed in his speech. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said Kerry’s principles were “mostly consistent with the international consensus and Egypt’s vision but in the end what is important is the will to implement those principles eventually.”
Saudi Arabia welcomed the proposals, according to an official at the Saudi Foreign Ministry, who said Riyadh views them as being in accord with the majority of the resolutions of international legality.
Riyadh said Kerry’s proposals have elements of the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia and adopted by an Arab summit at Beirut in 2002. It added that the proposals represent an “appropriate basis” for achieving a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But, Maddy-Weitzman noted “there is no operative clause in the Saudi response to move forward fast and do this or that.”
“This suggests the Saudis understand there won’t be signi icant movement any time soon as a result of the speech,” he said. “They recognize there is a new administration coming in that is expressing itself differently on Middle East issues. Saudi strategic priorities are elsewhere. There are more acute issues occupying their thinking. The Palestinian-Israeli issue is lower down.” That doesn’t mean they don’t care and would go along with anything the Israeli government would do, he said.
“At this point the Saudis won’t take the lead on Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy unless the Trump administration takes the initiative or something forces them to, like a new intifada.” But Riyadh will try to persuade the US not to move its embassy to Jerusalem, Maddy-Weitzman predicts.
In its reaction to Kerry, Egypt was mindful of Trump’s intervention a week earlier against its sponsorship of the Security Council resolution specifying that settlements have “no legal validity.” Egypt withdrew its sponsorship in deference to Trump and it formulated its response to Kerry with Trump in mind, not wanting to appear to be confrontational towards Israel.
Cairo, which viewed the Obama administration as selling out Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring of 2011 and of subsequently backing the Muslim Brotherhood, has high hopes for closer ties with Trump. Egypt is relieved to have an administration coming in that will not make an issue out of its human rights abuses in crushing the brotherhood and other opposition.
“The leaders of this ‘terrorist’ organization and those regional and Arab powers that lend them support should realize that the election of Donald Trump will usher in new directions for US foreign policy, which will discontinue the ‘interventionist’ policies of the two previous US administrations,” wrote Hussein Haridy, a former Foreign Ministry official, in the Al-Ahram weekly. “If this happens there will be much more effective cooperation between the American and Egyptian governments in dealing constructively and successfully with existing challenges and threats across the Middle East.”
Yoram Meital, an Egypt specialist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: “Egypt wants foremost to open a new page with the new administration, they understand Trump is navigating policy in a different direction and are aware of the president-elect’s rhetoric in support of Israel and Netanyahu’s policy.” Egypt is also anxious to avoid getting into a row with Israel over settlements, he says.
Jordan’s Foreign Ministry said Kerry’s vision is in line with the kingdom’s stance.
It has a greater stake than any other Arab country in a two-state solution, but is burdened by conflicts swirling around it in Syria and Iraq, absorbing Syrian refugees and terrorism at home and lacks the clout to push forward negotiations.
“They fear Palestinians being pushed into Jordan and an exacerbation of the conflict in the West Bank and Jerusalem that could spill over,” says Maddy-Weitzman.
“They wish Kerry’s plan could be implemented but they don’t have the leverage to make that happen.”