Why are Arab states ‘divided’ in the face of Trump’s plan?

Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo (Wikipedia)

Farah Najjar

Al-Jazeera  /  January 31, 2020

Several countries facing social and economic upheaval and a perceived threat from Iran fail to challenge Trump’s plan.

The divided reaction from Arab states to US President Donald Trump’s so-called Middle East plan has come as no surprise, analysts say, noting that the main reason for support – whether strong or subtle – is to guarantee Washington’s backing against a common regional enemy, Iran.

It is also indicative of the division among Arab countries and their inability to prioritise the Palestinian people’s plight over domestic economic agendas and political calculations in relation to the Trump administration, they say.

The absence of a unified, firm rejection of Trump’s plan, announced on Tuesday, signals some Arab states’ willingness to normalise relations with Israel to secure a “united front” against perceived threats from Iran.

“The US-Iran brief military confrontation in January has convinced some Gulf countries that Washington is their only protector,” Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian author and journalist, told Al Jazeera.

“Some Arabs have completely forsaken Palestine and are embracing Israel to fend against an imaginary Iranian threat,” Baroud said.

Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, which traditionally championed Palestinian cause, have cosied up to Israel in recent years as they see Iran as a bigger regional threat.

“I think that what has been done is these people have adopted the approach that my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” Diana Buttu, analyst and former legal adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators, told Al Jazeera.

“And it shouldn’t have to neutralise Iran, or deal with Iran … It would come at the expense of the Palestinians,” she said.

‘State of moral decay’ 

Trump unveiled his proposal to a pro-Israel audience at the White House alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Among those in attendance at the unveiling gathering were ambassadors from Bahrain, the UAE and Oman.

Muscat, which has traditionally conducted a neutral foreign policy, in a surprise move welcomed Netanyahu in 2018 – the first visit to Oman by an Israeli leader in over two decades.

While Saudi Arabia said it appreciates Trump’s efforts and called for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks, the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, said the plan “offers an important starting point for a return to negotiations within a US-led international framework”.

Egypt followed suit, urging “a careful and thorough examination of the US vision”, while Jordan warned against “annexation of Palestinian lands”. Amman is the custodian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem – considered the third holiest site in Islam.

Although some of these countries have always opposed Iran’s growing influence in the region, they have in the past taken stronger positions against Israeli policy in Palestine.

Since taking office on January 20, 2017, Trump has emerged as an avowed backer of Israel and Netanyahu’s anti-Palestinian policies, which include a series of measures that have been criticised as “racist” and “discriminatory”.

Most notably, Trump’s controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the relocation of its embassy there in 2018 drew universal condemnation from Arab leaders, while Palestinian leaders, who see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, said the US was no longer an honest broker in negotiations.

The Trump administration also said it no longer considers Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem illegal, reversing decades of US policy – a move slammed by Palestinians and rights groups.

Washington also closed down the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) mission offices in Washington, over the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to enter into US-led talks with Israel.

These steps against the Palestinian people and their leadership has seen Arabs nations openly condemn some US-Israeli policies as violations of international law, especially when it came to the status of Jerusalem and the moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv.

“I think the symbolism of Jerusalem makes it more difficult for US client states to go against their public,” Sam Husseini, director of the Washington, DC-based Institute of Public Accuracy, said.

“The Palestinians as a people are more easy to abandon,” he said.

Similarly, Baroud said, the abandonment of the Palestinian people by endorsing Trump’s plan reflects the “state of moral decay and disunity of the Arab body politic”.

“On the one hand, they are bashfully trying to show support for Palestinians, but, on the other, they do not want to find themselves in a political confrontation with Washington and its allies,” he said.

Alaa Tartir, policy advisor at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network says Arab countries do not want to take on the US.

“In the absence of an empowered League of Arab States … individual Arab states prioritise their own agenda, needs, and regional aspirations and ambitious,” Tartir told Al Jazeera.

“Saying a blunt ‘no’ to the US Administration comes with consequences that many Arab States are unwilling to bear,” he noted.

‘Dependency on the US’ 

Trump’s proposal sidelined Palestinians and is in violation of UNSC Resolution 242 that called on Israel to withdraw its forces from territories it had occupied in the Six-Day War, as well as the return of refugees.

It envisions the Israeli annexation of large swaths of the occupied West Bank including illegal settlements and the Jordan Valley, giving Israel a permanent eastern border along the Jordan River.

In order to confront the plan, Arab states should come up with a “parallel and detailed operational alternative plan and vision,” Tartir said.

“They could lead a process to reform the global governance institutions; and they could invest in international mechanisms and norms to solidify them in [the] face of the continuous American-Israeli violations.”

But most Arab states are trapped in cycles of “fragmentation, polarisation, weakness”, and most importantly, “dependency on the US administration,” said Tartir, referring to social and economic upheaval in several countries of the region.

While some depend on the US for political power, others, like Jordan and Egypt, also depend on US funding as both countries are among the top recipients of US aid.

Since 1979, Egypt has been receiving aid at an average of $1.6bn a year, the bulk of which goes to the military. The US funding was briefly suspended during President Barack Obama administration following the military coup in 2012.

Amman and Cairo, close US allies and the only Arab nations to have diplomatic ties with Israel, seem to be economically too fragile to counter US-Israel policies in the region.

“To speak of Arab political power and potential unity to defend Palestinian rights seems entirely inconsistent with the nature of the current political reality,” Baroud noted.

“The rights of the Palestinian people, and, frankly, the rights of the Arab people do not factor in the least, in the political Arab agenda at the moment,” he said.

Farah Najjar is an online news and features writer with Al Jazeera English; she covers war and conflict, politics and development in the Middle East region; she has reported from Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and the Gaza Strip amongst others