'Saudis should lead delegation to Israel,' former US Mideast envoy says

Dennis Ross' tenure on the peace process and the Middle East is a long and storied one.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman attends a signing ceremony between US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (not pictured) at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman attends a signing ceremony between US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (not pictured) at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia should lead a delegation to Israel as part of a triangular initiative that would help jump-start the frozen peace process, former US envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross told The Jerusalem Post.
“Israel is not going to make any concessions to the Palestinians unless they get something from the Saudis or the Arab states,” Ross said on Thursday.
The veteran diplomat was in Israel on Wednesday and Thursday to attend the second annual Track II environmental conference at the Arava Institute at Kibbutz Ketura, near Eilat, which brought together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.
Both to the Post and to the conference, Ross spoke of how the Trump administration could leverage behind-thescenes cooperation between Israel and the Sunni Arab states with regard to the Iranian threat.
“The Saudis could lead a delegation to Israel... to discuss common security threats in the region,” Ross said.
Israel does not have formal diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.
Former US envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross (Credit: Courtesy)
Former US envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross (Credit: Courtesy)
Its leadership does not recognize the Jewish state and has never visited it.
But Ross, who in the 1990s worked to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal under US president Bill Clinton, said he believed that now, in light of the common Iranian threat, a new development could allow for some progress to be achieved.
“There is one new element in the equation... this convergence of threat perception between Israel and the Sunni Arab leaders. Below the radar screen, there is already a level of cooperation that goes on that you have never seen before. The question is, can you take advantage of it for this issue?” he said.
Ross presented the possibility of a Saudi visit as part of a package of crisscrossing incentives that could lead to a new peace process. In addition to Riyadh, the idea would involve the US, Israelis and Palestinians.
He explained that – in exchange for a Saudi gesture – Israel would make concessions to the Palestinians. The Saudis would then take a step toward Israel based on those concessions and on US assurances of regional support. As part of the package, the Palestinians would in turn make concessions to Israel.
“You bring the region into this process, because neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will make a move to each other unless there is an Arab cover. Nothing gets launched without the Arab cover,” Ross said.
Israelis have to believe they will receive something for making concessions to the Palestinians. That has to come from the Arabs states, Ross said, especially from the Saudis. And those Arab leaders, he added, need incentives from the United States to take those steps.
The Saudis have to believe that “the US will address what is their big concern. They have this fear that the US will withdraw from the region and won’t contain the Iranians,” he said.
“Most Arab leaders who have historic relations with the US have always viewed the US as being the guarantor of their security. The [Arab] fear is that the US will not play that role.
If they become convinced that the US is playing that [regional] role, then the US can say to them, we are doing this, but this is what we require from you,” Ross said.
A Saudi visit to Israel would be seen “crossing a big threshold” and could justify Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, he said.
Ross suggested that Israel take three steps toward the Palestinians: Freeze all settlement building outside the blocs; forswear sovereignty over 92% of Area C, essentially those areas beyond the West Bank security barrier; and advance Palestinian development – particularly economic development and building – in Area C.
Area C constitutes about 61% of the West Bank, and under the Oslo Accords, Israel has security and civil authority there.
The Palestinians, in turn, could acknowledge that the Jews are a people with a right to self-determination. “That would be a big deal,” he said.
“Each side has a set of responsibilities if they want to break the stalemate, if they want to restore as sense of possibility.”
Ross spoke as the Trump administration has taken steps to launch a new peace process. US President Donald Trump is expected to meet in New York on Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and on Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The talks will take place on the sidelines of the opening session of the annual UN General Assembly meeting.
Another former diplomat commented on the Trump administration’s peace-making efforts on Thursday.
Elliott Abrams, who was a special assistant to US president George W. Bush, told the Israel Project in a telephone interview that he did not expect any movement on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“I do not see a basis for optimism in 2017,” he said.
Domestic politics have made it difficult for both Netanyahu and Abbas to make the kind of concessions necessary for a deal, said Abrams.
Abbas’s age, 82, means that he is more vulnerable to political attacks, and Netanyahu’s legal issues have made him reliant on his hard-line right-wing base, Abrams said, adding that the Trump administration is less optimistic than it had been six months ago.
“They are now fully familiar with the details and with the reasons that previous efforts by everyone from Bill Clinton on have failed.”
Still, the administration is pushing to restart negotiations and there are things that can be done, particularly in the economic sphere, said Abrams.
It is plausible that some form of a negotiation process will resume, he said.
Abrams recalled that US president Barack Obama had opened negotiations in the fall of 2010 with a Washington meeting between Netanyahu, Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan and then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
“They said we are initiating negotiations, but it only lasted for six weeks,” Abrams said.
Ross said that he was an optimist about the future.
“I am not one of those who are highly skeptical of what [the Trump administration is] trying to do,” he said.
“The Trump administration is in the early stages still of defining what their approach will be. The right thing to do before you come up with an approach is don’t build exceptions, last thing we need right now is a high profile, new initiative that is bound to fail,” Ross said. “Cynicism and disbelief is the greatest thing we deal with right now.”
Both Israelis and Palestinians think it is impossible for the other side to accept some of their basic demands, he added.
“The gap psychologically is wider now than at any time since I began to work on this. The idea that you can go for the whole deal right now, when there is this kind of a gap, is an illusion,” Ross said.
But significant progress can still be made, particularly if people on the ground can feel that something has changed.
“It is not hopeless, it is just difficult,” Ross said.