Regional crossroads

One way to read the Mecca statement is paying lip service to the Palestinian cause and the Jerusalem issue without doing anything.

June 2, 2019 21:57
3 minute read.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before the start of the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia April 15, 2018. (photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS)

Jerusalem was in the spotlight of several important Middle East events over the last few days as Iran pushed its annual Quds Day protests and Saudi Arabia hosted three summits devoted to regional security and Islamic unity. In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Jared Kushner, senior adviser to US President Donald Trump, on Thursday. The events and meetings show once again that despite other regional conflicts, it is essential for Israel to keep its eye on developments that seek to spotlight the Palestinian cause.

“It is always a great pleasure to welcome Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt to Israel, to Jerusalem, and to discuss our common efforts for prosperity, security and peace,” Netanyahu said last week. Greenblatt is Trump’s special representative for international negotiations and he and Kushner were in the region to discuss Trump’s peace plan.

“I am tremendously encouraged by everything that I hear about how the US under President Trump is working to bring allies together in this region against common challenges and also to seize common opportunities,” the prime minister said.

US-Israel relations are stronger than ever in Jerusalem’s eyes and Netanyahu wants them to grow even stronger. The American team visited Morocco and Jordan on their way to Israel, hearing that the Kingdom of Jordan believes the creation of a Palestinian state is a necessary part of any deal. The US is backing an investment conference in Bahrain later this month with support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Saudi Arabia’s importance was made clear over the weekend as it hosted three summits in Mecca. One of these was devoted to Gulf relations, another to regional Arab policy and a third to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. While Riyadh wants to find unity against Iranian threats, there was also an attempt to thaw relations with Qatar and to create a consensus statement regarding the Palestinians. The OIC statement condemned countries that had made the “illegal and irresponsible decision” to recognize Jerusalem and move their embassies to Israel’s capital. “The Palestinian people have the right to achieve their inalienable national rights,” the OIC said.

The Palestinian Authority is cheering the Mecca summit as sending a strong and clear message to the US. “Everyone must understand that peace has only one clear path and its address is the legitimate Palestinian leadership,” Nabil Abu Rudaineh, spokesman for the PA presidency, said.

One way to read the Mecca statement is paying lip service to the Palestinian cause and the Jerusalem issue without doing anything.

Clearly, Riyadh’s priority is the Iranian threat. This is a pressing issue because Iranian-backed Houthis have fired ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia and launched drone attacks. In mid-May the Iranians allegedly sabotaged four oil tankers, two of them Saudi.

Another issue also impacts Israeli policy. Qatar was invited to the Saudi summits and there may be a thaw between Doha and Riyadh. Qatar plays a key role in financial support for Gaza and has historically supported Hamas. It is not clear yet how Qatar’s visit will play out, but it may want to have a renewed role in any peace discussions that take place. Qatar previously sought to play this role and has attempted to cultivate contacts with pro-Israel voices in the US.

The Quds Day protests across the region, supported by Iran and its allies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, represent a direct challenge to Israel. They seek to encourage Shi’ites across the region and others to see Israel as the central enemy. In Iraq, people were encouraged to march on Israeli flags. Hezbollah has postured as a main opposition to the US peace push. This means that as the US gets closer to providing more concrete details of its plans, there will be increased tensions with Hezbollah and likely with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria. It is no surprise that on May 27 and on June 1 there were incidents along the Golan border.

On the positive side, the US, Russia and Israel are supposed to have a trilateral meeting this month. Netanyahu praised this unprecedented meeting last week. He is right to do so. But the prime minister must move cautiously and be cognizant that Jerusalem is being watched in Riyadh and Tehran. Israel has reached impressive accomplishments in its foreign policy through a modest and consistent approach; it should be continued. 

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