Saudi Arabia’s all-powerful crown prince has opened up a new front in his attempts to change the Middle East by intervening in Palestinian politics and demanding backing for President Trump’s vision for peace with Israel.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, was summoned to Riyadh last week for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Details were overshadowed by the purge ordered by the prince of rival royals, ministers and businessmen on corruption allegations and the apparently Saudi-orchestrated resignation of Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister.
However, the meeting coincided with preparations, led by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East point man, for a new effort to forge some sort of peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Reports in Israel say the prince told Mr Abbas to accept whatever proposals were put forward if and when they were announced by Mr Trump, or to resign.
Mr Kushner made an unannounced visit to Riyadh two weeks ago and is said to have stayed up late into the night talking to the prince about regional and internal Saudi issues.
The prince has identified himself closely with the Trump administration, in co-ordination with Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi who in effect rules the United Arab Emirates, a long-time Washington ally. The two have taken on Qatar and, more recently, the growing role of Hezbollah in Lebanon, in the name of fighting terrorism, a key Trump talking point for the Middle East. They have won warm words from Mr Trump, who strongly backed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s purge of more than 200 royals and officials ten days ago.
Washington has been more circumspect on Qatar and Lebanon but clearly regards Saudi Arabia as a central player in the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Mr Kushner, Jason Greenblatt (Mr Trump’s chief negotiator), Dina Powell, (deputy national security adviser), and David Friedman, (the US ambassador to Israel), are known to be drawing up a broad blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
A senior Israeli official said this week that they seemed to be “starting to get serious about the plan” and the expectation is that it will be announced early in the new year. The Gulf princes are eager for progress to be made to allow for more co-ordination with Israel against Iran without being accused of betraying the Palestinian cause. The Palestinians are said to have wanted to cultivate their own relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as an interlocutor trusted by Washington who could present their cause sympathetically.
Any initial offer by the White House is likely to accept many of the Israeli government’s terms on settlements in the occupied territories, a particular stumbling block. The Trump administration has not previously shown any willingness to endorse a two-state solution, the basis for most attempts to resolve Israeli and Palestinian differences, though that might be changing.
An alternative account of the talks suggested that Saudi Arabia’s principal concern was to stop Hamas and Hezbollah forming an alliance to take over Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The Saudis are already major donors to the Palestinian Authority and are expected to invest in new infrastructure projects if progress is made in talks.
Like all American administrations of the past four decades, the Trump White House is gearing up to present its own plan to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Anshel Pfeffer writes).
There have been no leaks so far regarding what the plan might be, either because it is yet to be formulated or because it is being prepared by a very small team of presidential advisers.
In previous rounds of negotiations, the State Department and National Security Council were heavily involved.
Whatever it is, it is likely to cause political problems for both sides. A majority of Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition is opposed to any form of two-state solution, while with the Trump administration visibly favouring Israel, the Palestinians will be hard put to agree to anything less favourable than proposals of previous administrations.
One component that it is certain is heavy involvement of America’s major Sunni allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Egyptians are the brokers of the recent Palestinian reconciliation agreement between the main factions of Fatah and Hamas.
Less certain but expected is a commitment to the two-state solution. While Mr Trump early in his presidency expressed scepticism, he seems to have come around to embracing a formula which broadly accepts a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Palestinians will demand some freeze on settlement building, but at this point Israel is unlikely to be called upon to dismantle existing settlements.
In return, the Palestinian Authority will be offered more control over the West Bank, and an easing of the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Israeli and Palestinian forces are likely to continue to co-operate over security, while there will have to be some limited release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
Left unclear will be a binding timetable for Palestinian statehood, while the thorny issues of final borders of the Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem and a resolution of the Palestinian refugees are likely to be deferred to a later date.