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Trump’s regional priorities

One day after Arab leaders, gathered in Jordan, recommitted themselves to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and to a comprehensive political deal between Israel and the Palestinians, while rejecting Israel’s unilateral actions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by giving the go ahead to build a new “official” settlement near Nablus. 

It was the first time in two decades that an Israeli government had approved the establishment of a new colony deep in the heart of the occupied West Bank.

The Israeli response to renewed peace offerings by Arab leaders was blunt and crude. But it also challenged a request made by US President Donald Trump, when he met the Israeli prime minister last month, to “hold back on settlements.” 

Talks held in March between US and Israeli negotiators in Washington aimed at limiting building in the settlements were suspended without reaching an agreement. 

Netanyahu, in a bid to preempt a US reaction, announced that any future construction would be limited to existing settlements or adjacent to them, and that Israel will prevent the construction of any new illegal outposts.

As host of the Arab summit, Jordan was able to reposition the Palestinian issue as top priority after years of neglect. King Abdallah had championed a two-state solution as the only viable path to a just and comprehensive peace. Arab leaders stood firm behind the original peace initiative despite pressures, supposedly by Israel, to amend it by disengaging normalization with Arab and Muslim states from the condition of arriving at an agreement with the Palestinians, and omitting any reference to the right of return for refugees.

Arab commitment to peace as “a strategic choice” has been snubbed by successive Israeli leaders. Despite decades of intermittent negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, the latter has evaded committing to full withdrawal from the West Bank, reaching a just deal on East Jerusalem, halting settlement-building and recognizing an independent Palestinian state.

Under the current Netanyahu-led coalition government, the most extreme in Israel’s history, none of these issues is on the table. While giving lip service to the two-state option, Netanyahu wants the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state — putting the fate of 1.7 million Arab citizens of Israel in jeopardy — and accept a permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley.

Under the new US administration, Israel’s right-wing parties see a golden opportunity to bury the two-state solution and, with it, the principle of an independent Palestinian state.

Osama Al-Sharif

Yet Netanyahu offers nothing in return. He wants unconditional and open-ended negotiations to take place with the Palestinians.

Under President Trump, Israel’s right-wing parties see a golden opportunity to bury the two-state solution and, with it, the principle of an independent Palestinian state. For them the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria, is an organic component of the state of Israel. If the Palestinians want a state of their own they should go to Gaza or Jordan. Those who stay can enjoy limited self-rule, a proposal that goes back to the 1970s, while ceding all other rights.

Netanyahu is an opportunist and while he may agree ideologically with his right-wing partners, he will not slam the door shut in the face of Palestinian aspirations — at least not now. He has used the regional chaos that resulted from the so-called Arab Spring to marginalize President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian issue. He has successfully diverted attention from his aggressive settlement expansion to the growing Iranian influence in the region and the threat of “Islamist terror.”

While the Europeans continue to insist on the veracity of the two-state solution, this is not the case in the US. A pro-Israel US Congress and now a prejudiced tenant of the White House provide the perfect opportunity to wage a final assault on the two-state solution and the concept of a negotiated settlement.

With Trump showing indifference to the two-state solution, Israel’s far right is putting pressure on Netanyahu to go as far as annexing major chunks of the West Bank and undercutting any hope for the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, Trump is considering holding a regional peace conference this summer that aims at cobbling together a coalition that includes Arab states and Israel to confront Iranian expansion. He sees a growing role for Egypt as was evident in the recent meeting with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in the Oval Office.

How this approach will reflect on the fate of the Arab Peace Initiative, and by extension the Palestinian issue, is unclear. More will come out when Trump meets Abbas later this month. Trump promised to strike a bigger and better deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but that remains improbable if the legal parameters are abandoned. What is evident is that Trump’s priorities — Iran and terror — override any other issue.

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.