New peace initiatives
We are living in remarkable times. Never before in Israel’s short history has there been such a striking convergence of interests between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.
Iran and Islamic State have become unparalleled unifying forces, pushing Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt into the same camp with Israel. All these countries share the desire to stop Iranian expansion in the region. They are united in their opposition to Iran’s proxies – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. They view Islamist extremism as an existential threat, and are acutely aware that without Israeli cooperation, an anti-Iranian, anti-ISIS front would lack much of its effectiveness.
This paradigm shift in relations between Israel and its Sunni neighbors has already had a direct impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the benefit of both Israelis and Palestinians.
According to a report by The New York Times, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman presented a peace initiative to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when he visited Riyadh last month.
According to the plan, Palestinians would have to settle for less than a full-fledged state of their own, which would be established on noncontiguous patches of land in the West Bank connected by roads, bridges and underpasses.
The vast majority of Jewish communities would stay put.
Jerusalem would remain the capital of Israel, while the Palestinians would make Abu Dis, a neighborhood adjacent to Jerusalem, the capital of their new state. And Palestinian refugees who left Israel during and immediately after the 1948 War of Independence and their descendants would not be granted the right of return to Israel proper.
Both Saudi Arabia and the PA have officially denied the plan was presented at the Salman-Abbas meeting, but the idea is now out there in the Arab world. Even if this initiative is Salman’s idea and does not have the official support of the Saudi government, it is a remarkable breakthrough that reflects a sincere desire on the part of the Saudis to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to remove a major obstacle to full and open cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh.
In the past, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries had less of an incentive to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, the opposite was true. Israel was often demonized by autocratic regimes to deflect criticism from themselves. The plight of the Palestinians was a rallying cry shared by all Arabs. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was a product of this geopolitical reality. It affirmed the right of return, insisted on a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.
Fifteen years later, it is clear from Salman’s plan that the goal is not to perpetuate the conflict but to bring about a workable compromise so that cooperation with Israel on what really matters to the Saudis – confronting Iran and ISIS – is made possible.
As noted by Jared Kushner during an onstage interview with Haim Saban at the Saban Forum in Washington, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a precondition for stability in the region and for the fostering of ties between Israel and Arab nations.
“As the situation evolved, a lot of countries began to look at Israel, who was traditionally their foes, as much more of a natural ally because of Iran and ISIS and extremism,” Kushner said. “They value Israel’s military might and strong economy. But there is an old reason for this not happening,” Kushner added, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We are living in an era in which Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia, have a vested interest in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And, for the first time, there are indications that instead of backing Palestinians’ unrealistic demands and repeating empty mantras such as a full return to pre-1967 borders and a full right of return for Palestinian refugees, they are now pressuring the Palestinians to adopt a more pragmatic approach to Palestinian autonomy.
Less than full-fledged statehood but more than the status quo, the plan represents a reasonable starting point to build a future negotiations platform that would make a solution more feasible to reach for both sides.