The Peace to Prosperity workshop, hosted in Manama, Bahrain, in June, was not exactly a smashing success.
Described by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, as “the opportunity of the century,” the workshop was meant to mark an important step toward reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Kushner’s workshop called for $50 billion in investment for Palestinians in the occupied territories and neighboring countries, although the lack of an accompanying political plan, as well as any formal participation from the Israeli or Palestinian governments, was widely mocked by observers.
In a viral Twitter thread, Jack Moore, a journalist at the UAE-based newspaper The National, wrote that he “was left speechless by the Davos-esque Conflab on Palestinian Prosperousness, or ‘economic workshop,’ hosted by Jared Kushner & co.”
Moore said the attendees included “an odd mix of people, many with no link to the conflict: billionaires, real estate developers, a 15-yo who had 40k Instagram followers & a banker who was confused as to why he was even there.”
He added: “Both sides weren’t here, zero pledges, no big decisions, rare mentions of the realities.”
On that note, Kushner’s opening speech “promised no politics” — even though the politics of the Israeli occupation, which places tight restrictions on the West Bank and Gaza, makes economic investment in the Palestinian territories virtually unworkable.
Moore summed up the workshop by writing that “this totally surreal event left me feeling like I was working in a parallel universe.”
Many shared his opinion.
“This event was astonishing — the way Kushner presented his plan as revolutionary, something so special and innovative. It was incredible, given it wasn’t attached to any political solution or plan,” Elisabeth Marteu, a Bahrain-based associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Washington Diplomat,
“The ignorance of these people in conflict resolution is astounding. An economic plan without any political plan is nothing. It’s as if the U.S. wants to impose a solution without any agreement on the ground between the two parties. It’s a top-down approach, a pure top-down approach which has no chance to succeed.”
While much of the international community agreed that the workshop was a disappointment, it did highlight an increasingly visible rapprochement between Israel and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), most importantly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
On the final day of the workshop, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa told Israel’s Channel 13 News that “Israel is a country in the Middle East. Israel is part of the heritage of this region, historically. The Jewish people have a place amongst us.”
The comments were not entirely unprecedented: In April 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”
The comments at the Peace to Prosperity workshop were notable nonetheless.
“It’s new to hear a foreign minister say the Jewish people and Jewish heritage is at the heart of the Middle East history. But it’s not a surprise coming from Bahrain. It has a special spot in the GCC given the presence of the Jewish community here,” said Marteu.
Indeed, Bahrain’s small Jewish community was on prominent display during the economic workshop, when the Bahrain Synagogue on Sasa’ah Avenue hosted a press event. The Times of Israel later ran a feature citing the “VIP treatment” Israeli reporters received while in Bahrain as a sign that times have changed.
The Iran Dossier
While such public overtures made headlines, the formal normalization of ties between Israel and the GCC is a long way off given the Arab public’s hostility toward the so-called “Zionist enemy” and its longstanding support for the Palestinians.
But behind the scenes, Israel and GCC countries have been quietly cooperating for years. This cooperation has recently ramped up because of a convergence of factors, including growing economic links between Israel and GCC countries (two-way trade is estimated to be $1 billion a year); waning international interest in the moribund Israel-Palestinian peace process, which is no longer a primary driver of regional politics; the scramble for power unleashed by the Arab Spring; the game-changing presidency of Donald Trump; and, perhaps most importantly, the rise of a shared enemy: Iran.
In fact, Iran’s growing influence in the region has created an unlikely coalition of leaders — Trump; Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman; Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed; and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — all of whom have united around one goal: keeping the region’s largest Shiite power in check.
This proxy war against Iran has come at the expense of the Palestinians, whose cause is no longer seen as a priority among many Arab governments. In fact, Netanyahu’s pre-election pledge to annex roughly a third of the occupied West Bank barely elicited any response from Arab states other than perfunctory condemnations.
“Clearly this relationship is built around the Iran file and not the Palestinians. GCC governments clearly see the benefits of having a close relationship with Israel in order to confront the Iranian challenge,” retired U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein told The Washington Diplomat.
Feierstein served as the U.S. envoy to Yemen from 2010 to 2013, and worked at embassies in Pakistan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Israel and Lebanon over the course of his 41-year career with the U.S. Foreign Service. He was quick to place recent events within a historical context.
“I wouldn’t describe it [pro-Israel statements from Gulf leaders] as nothing, and I wouldn’t describe it as a change of sorts either. Look at what the Saudi position has been since 2001, when Mohammed bin Salman’s uncle, King Abdullah, introduced the Arab Peace Initiative, which will normalize relations with Israel when it achieves a peace agreement with Palestinians. That’s been the Saudi position ever since,” he said.
The Arab Peace Initiative is a 10-sentence proposal that called for the normalization of relations between the Arab region and Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, as well as a fair settlement plan for Palestinian refugees.
Although the Israeli government rejected the initiative, it was re-endorsed at the 2007 and 2017 Arab League summits, with both Netanyahu and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert voicing tentative support for some of its elements.
Feierstein, who now works as senior vice president at the D.C.-based Middle East Institute, said that the Saudis, Emiratis and Bahrainis have become more open to forging closer ties with Israel.
A major factor driving this evolution was former President Obama’s own attempts to forge closer ties with Tehran through the landmark Iran nuclear deal, which was fiercely opposed by Israel and the GCC countries.
While Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, Israel and Saudi Arabia remain wary of any dialogue between the unpredictable U.S. president and Iranian officials.
In fact, the mere prospect of Trump meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the G7 summit in August sent alarm bells through Israel and Saudi Arabia. Feierstein noted “how the governments reacted … when it looked for a brief moment like there might be some kind of change in the U.S. position on Iran. Netanyahu was desperately trying to call Trump to make sure everything was OK. Mohammed bin Salman and his deputy defense minister went to talk to [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and [Defense Secretary Mark] Esper.… The expectation that they had based all their policies on — that Trump was firmly in their camp — suddenly had a bit of a shake.”
The dustup followed months of rising volatility and confrontation with Iran that have brought the Middle East, once again, to the brink of war.
Much of the current tension has its roots in Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, in May 2018.
The 159-page agreement placed significant constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Notably, it allowed Iranian oil exports to resume, offering a critical economic lifeline to the country after nearly three decades of crippling restrictions on trade and exports.
As part of the deal, Iran was forced to allow regular inspections of its nuclear program, and up until recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran had been in full compliance with its obligations.
Nevertheless, Trump withdrew from the agreement because he said it did not address Iran’s pursuit of ballistic missiles or its other malign activities in the region. Supporters of the nuclear agreement argue that it was never intended to do that. It was meant to minimize the nuclear threat, which it successfully did, and act as a springboard to address other thorny issues such as Iran’s support of Hezbollah and other proxy groups.
But Trump, convinced he could negotiate a better deal, adopted a campaign of “maximum pressure” to bring Iran back to the bargaining table. That campaign essentially hinges on bringing the country to its knees through economic isolation.
Trump reimposed sanctions the U.S. had lifted as part of the nuclear deal and slapped a series of punishing new sanctions on Iran to choke off its oil revenue. The punitive measures have taken a heavy toll on Iran’s economy, causing its currency to plummet, inflation to soar and the shortage of essential goods such as drugs.
Yet the administration insists its maximum pressure campaign is geared toward the regime in Tehran, not Iranians as a whole.
“President Trump is committed to supporting the people of Iran, and hopes one day for a better future between our two peoples,” said Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran.
But those words ring hollow to many average Iranians who have borne the brunt of sanctions. In fact, some experts argue that the sanctions have had the counterproductive effect of galvanizing Iranians — many of whom have little love for their own corrupt, repressive government — to defend their embattled leadership in the face of what Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has described as economic warfare.
The sanctions may also be strengthening hardliners in the regime, who have long maintained that the U.S. can never be trusted, at the expense of moderates who had pursued dialogue with Washington.
Indeed, far from bringing Iran back to the negotiating table, Washington’s maximum pressure campaign seems to have had the opposite effect, escalating tensions in the area, which in recent months has seen a series of oil tanker clashes, downed drones and a major attack on Saudi oil facilities.
In May, The New York Times reported that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented Trump with an updated military plan to potentially send as many as 120,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East in response to an Iranian attack on American forces or the resumption of Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.
Shortly afterward, Iran was accused of attacking and sabotaging several oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, a critical oil chokepoint.
In June, the president told the media that he was within minutes of launching a military strike against Iran in retaliation for shooting down an American surveillance drone.
In July, Iran seized a British-owned oil tanker two weeks after British forces impounded an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar that was suspected of transporting Iranian oil to Syria. The Iranian tanker, Adrian Darya 1, was later released despite fierce U.S. opposition that included an unprecedented offer to reward the ship’s captain with several million dollars if he allowed the U.S. to impound the ship’s oil.
Then on Sept. 14, a series of explosions crippled Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil facilities, disrupting over half of the country’s oil supply. The Trump administration blamed Iran for the attack, calling it an “act of war,” although as of press time, it looked as if neither Trump nor the Saudis had the stomach for a full-blown military confrontation with Tehran.
The attacks coincided with Iran’s pledges to renege on its JCPOA commitments in response to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. Iran said it will install more advanced centrifuges to speed up uranium enrichment and that it has exceeded caps on its uranium stockpile and enrichment levels set by JCPOA — all in violation of the nuclear agreement.
The recent breaches — while carefully calibrated and reversible — reflect Iran’s mounting impatience with the Europeans, who had pledged to help Iran’s struggling economy as long as Tehran did not abandon the nuclear deal.
After complying with the accord for a year following Trump’s withdrawal, Iran is now warning that it will steadily reduce its JCPOA commitments every 60 days until Europe delivers on its promises.
Stakeholders in Europe have been scrambling to salvage the deal, with France floating the possibility of a $15 billion line of credit to compensate Iran for lost oil sales if it returns to compliance with the nuclear deal.
But the U.S. is likely to block the French bailout — particularly after the attack on Saudi Aramco oil facilities — leading to fears that a confrontation between Iran and the U.S. may be inevitable.
The D.C.-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which advocates for dialogue between Iran and the U.S., said in a Sept. 4 statement that Iran’s decision to abandon the nuclear accord “is a predictable consequence of the Trump administration seemingly closing off every opportunity to resolve the Iran standoff diplomatically. A U.S. failure to pivot from maximum pressure to the diplomatic opportunities initiated by France and other American allies ensures a continued cycle of escalation that could quickly spin out of control.”
Michael Herzog is a retired brigadier general from the Israel Defense Forces, an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and head of the Forum of Strategic Dialogue between Israeli and European partners.
He is skeptical of Europe’s ability to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and questioned the reasoning behind the proposed $15 billion loan from France.
“I understand the French president is trying to mediate or broker some process, including a line of credit to Iran to ease sanctions. But from the Israeli point of view, the issue is not whether the two sides talk to each other, but what is the basis of such a dialogue? If the idea is to get Iran to fulfill its JCPOA obligations, $15 billion just to sit down and talk doesn’t seem like a very good idea, especially given what we’re experiencing with Iran in our own background,” he told The Diplomat.
For the Iranians, however, that $15 billion is money owed to them for adhering to the nuclear agreement. Thus far, Tehran has refused to sit down and talk to the Trump administration until it honors those JPCOA commitments by dropping sanctions.
But opinions within the regime are mixed. Some officials have expressed flexibility in meeting with Trump (who has flip-flopped on the issue multiple times). Others are adamant that the president’s maximum pressure campaign is just a thinly veiled attempt at the type of regime change that hawkish members of his administration have long pushed for.
It’s a suspicion shared by some in the U.S. as well.
“[Trump’s] advisers have come up with a shabby fix to the problem: The United States, they say, isn’t seeking regime change — it’s just trying to compel Iran into acting like a ‘normal country’” while supporting the people of Iran, wrote Jason Rezaian, a reporter for The Washington Post who was imprisoned in Tehran for a year and a half, in his Post column on July 30.
Yet Rezaian argues that despite its overtures, the U.S. has “sanctioned the massive Iranian middle class almost into extinction” and consistently alienated Iran’s leadership.
So, while many Iranians “began longing for the end of the Islamic republic on Feb. 11, 1979 — the day it came into existence,” Rezaian writes that “the administration’s Iran outreach falls flat, because it’s rooted in ignoring the lived experience of Iranians — not least the devastation wrought on them by U.S. policy.” That policy includes the type of Western meddling that led to the 1979 Revolution in the first place.
The Enemy of My Enemy
Even if the U.S. isn’t actively pushing for regime change, it certainly wouldn’t shed any tears if Iran’s Islamic theocracy fell by the wayside — nor would Saudi Arabia and Israel. While the Sunni powerhouse and Jewish state seem like strange bedfellows, the two have formed an unlikely alliance based on their shared enmity of Iran.
For the Israelis, Iran — particularly one armed with nukes — has long posed an existential threat. Meanwhile, the Saudis have long viewed Shiite Iran as their religious rival for power.
“The Gulf alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has recognized Israel — the region’s most formidable military and its only nuclear power — as a forceful ally in their own struggle with the threat of Iranian expansionism. For Israel, too, instead of facing off against Iran alone, the Islamic Republic becomes a regional threat, giving Israel more legitimacy in how it responds,” wrote Omar H. Rahman in the Jan. 28 report “What’s Behind the Relationship Between Israel and Arab Gulf States” for the Brookings Institution.
Forging relations with Gulf countries also allows Israel to sideline the Palestinians, argues Rahman, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
“If Netanyahu can show that the wealthy countries of the region are willing to normalize relations with Israel despite continued settlement building in the West Bank and no peace on the horizon with Palestinians, then the criticism of Netanyahu holds no water,” he wrote. “More importantly, Netanyahu will have done it without meaningfully adopting the land-for-peace formula in regards to the Palestinians that has been the basis for Arab-Israeli negotiations since it was developed during the Camp David process in the late 1970s.”
While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict defined the region’s geopolitical landscape for decades, in recent years it has been overshadowed by more pressing events, namely America’s post-9/11 war on terrorism, the Arab Spring and Iran’s growing influence.
That influence increased significantly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which installed a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. More recently, Tehran expanded its presence in Syria, where Iranian money and manpower helped prevent the fall of President Bashar al-Assad, a key ally. Iran has also indirectly benefited from the civil war in Yemen, where the Saudi-led campaign to oust Iran-aligned Houthi rebels has devolved into a military quagmire for the Saudis and Emiratis.
Iran’s influence on the world stage also grew under former President Obama, whose outreach helped Tehran emerge from international isolation but fueled Israeli and GCC fears that the White House was abandoning its traditional Middle East allies. Their frustration with Obama was amplified when he threw his support behind the 2011 uprising that ousted Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who was replaced by a democratically elected president belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Indeed, the 2011 Arab Spring was another major catalyst in cementing ties between Israel and the Sunni Gulf monarchies, as regional instability and the prospect of Islamist political movements threatened to upend the status quo.
According to Herzog, the uncertainty unleashed by the Arab Spring pushed the GCC to finally soften its stance toward Israel.
“It is true that Gulf states have been moving toward Israel since the early 2000s, but this same movement was significantly enhanced in the last few years. The main driving element was turmoil in the region which began with the so-called Arab Spring, this earthquake sweeping across the region. GCC countries felt vulnerable and threatened, especially by Iran and by extreme Sunni Islamists, and they looked around and realized that there is a country in the neighborhood that is stable, strong and can help them,” he said.
Herzog argued that Israel also has much to gain from a united front against Iran.
“In the eyes of Israelis, not only the government but Israelis at large, the three biggest strategic military challenges facing Israel would be Iran, Iran, Iran. The regime is openly hostile to Israel in terms of rhetoric, nuclear ambitions and regional ambitions,” he told us.
Herzog said that over the previous decade, particularly in recent years, Iran has been capitalizing on turmoil in the region to fill the power vacuum created by war.
Israel in particular fears that Iran aims to establish itself as the dominant actor, especially among Shiites, by creating a corridor extending from Iran to Lebanon.
“In Syria, for example, Iran moved to build a formidable front-facing military threat. It has 130,000 projectiles, mainly missiles, rockets and mortars, situated with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The feeling is that Iran is trying to encircle Israel with military threats in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza and, if it could, in the West Bank,” Herzog said.
Like Feierstein, Herzog also cited American’s erratic and ever-changing policy positions as a key driver of stronger ties between Israel and the GCC.
“A feeling of uncertainty began with the Obama administration but persisted with Trump: the notion that the Middle East as a whole is less important to the U.S. The U.S. is having less of a footprint in the region because it is less dependent on Middle East energy, and because of fatigue from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It feels it has invested so much in this region and gotten nothing, and it is more focused on the Far East, namely North Korea and China,” he said.
A Lost Cause?
While ongoing rapprochement will allow both sides to apply more pressure on Iran, a stronger Israel-GCC alliance comes at the expense of the Palestinian cause. Yet some stakeholders have questioned whether both sides are hyping the Iranian threat while ignoring the real existential threat in the region: the failure to find a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Generally speaking, the idea of Iran the bogeyman was created simply because the Arab world cannot face up to Israel, so it turned to Iran instead,” argued Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the D.C.-based Arab Center. “This plan to bring the Arabs and Israelis together to face Iran without addressing the Palestinian problem is not a good strategic idea. It doesn’t respect international law or human rights.”
Yet, as the Peace to Prosperity workshop clearly demonstrated, the Palestinian question seems doomed to be overshadowed by Iran.
Trump’s much-hyped “deal of the century” to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has yet to materialize. It’s been delayed again because of Israeli elections in September. In another potentially bad omen for the plan, Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special envoy for Middle East peace, announced he would leave his post. It’s been reported that Greenblatt’s replacement might be Kushner’s 30-year-old assistant, who has zero foreign policy experience (although Greenblatt has vacillated on when he might actually leave).
Describing the mood among Palestinians as one of “utter frustration,” Harb said their cause is “basically lost” and that they have no cards left to play in peace negotiations.
“Palestinians have given up everything that they were asked to give up. If you look at the Marxist mantra ‘you have nothing to lose but your chains,’ well, the Palestinians have nothing more to lose, nothing more to offer,” said Harb, who also served as a senior analyst at the UAE-based Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.
“Look at the Oslo Accords from 1993. The Palestinians renounced Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) violence, changed the PLO charter, and yet they did not get anything in return. I’m not saying Israel is an existential threat to the Arab world, but it is an existential threat to the Palestinian people. It should be talked to as if it is an occupier of Palestinian land.”
This sense of defeat has only grown under the Trump administration, which slashed U.S. aid to the Palestinians and made the historic decision to move America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move was widely interpreted as a de facto recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, negating Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem as their capital — one of the core issues in the peace process.
Meanwhile, the White House has been noncommittal as to whether any eventual peace plan would even support the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. Trump has also refused to condemn Israel’s annexation of settlements in the West Bank, including Netanyahu’s campaign announcement that he would take advantage of the “one-off opportunity” afforded to him by Trump to annex the occupied Jordan Valley if re-elected. Experts warn that if Israel continues to chip away at territory Palestinians claim for a future state, a two-state solution will eventually become a moot point. The alternative then would be a one-state solution whereby Israel absorbs Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — which would either dilute Israel’s Jewish majority or force the country to adopt a system of apartheid by restricting the citizenship rights of Palestinians.
While Israel has drawn worldwide condemnation for its annexation of Israeli settlements, the Palestinians have not always helped their own plight. The aging, increasingly irrelevant Fatah party leadership that controls the West Bank has failed to reconcile with its Islamist rival Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and continues to launch attacks against Israel that have only further isolated the destitute coastal enclave.
To that end, Harb calls for a new Palestinian approach to the peace process.
“I think the situation is calling for new leadership among the Palestinians, a new national project. It will not be fighting or guerrilla warfare. It has to be based on the principles of international law and human rights,” he said, arguing that, much like African Americans in the 1960s, “Palestinians need to re-unify their ranks behind a program of civil resistance and civil rights. It could be that the solution to the Palestinian cause is a one-state solution — one binational state where Palestinians are fighting for their civil rights.”
Harb is not alone in arguing that decades of failed peace processes have left dispossessed Palestinians, particularly the younger generation, doubtful that a two-state solution will ever be achieved.
“It’s certainly being debated, and this whole issue of two state/one state is an issue people are talking about,” said Feierstein. “I was in Israel and occupied territories in January, in Ramallah. What they were saying is young Palestinians in particular have given up expectation of a two-state solution and are looking at a one-state solution as more of a realistic option.”
In Herzog’s view, however, a one-state solution is not an option.
“That formula does not resonate because the overwhelming majority of Israelis believe a binational state is a recipe for catastrophe. I myself ascribe to this. It wouldn’t be a one-state solution because one state is not a solution. All you need to do is look at historic precedents of civil wars in Belfast and the Balkans, and look at us in the Middle East. States are falling apart along sectarian lines,” he said, noting nonetheless that he’s concerned “there will come a point where it will be impossible to separate [the two sides], and as an Israeli, I fear the moment that we cross the point of no return toward a binational reality. That is a recipe for ongoing, perpetual conflict.”
No Clear Solution
Feierstein agreed that a one-state solution is highly unlikely given current political realities.
“There is no agreement whatsoever, not even close to an agreement, on what a one-state solution means. For Palestinians, it means full civil rights and liberties — a fully unified state. Israelis think more or less of the status quo, where they absorb the West Bank into a greater Israel without any intention of according Palestinians equal rights,” he said.
“Other people are saying — and I would ascribe to this view whether you think there’s going to be a two-state solution or not — the fact of the matter is no one has identified a serious alternative to the two-state solution. I’m skeptical that there is such a thing as a one-state approach.”
With no resolution in sight and tensions between Iran and its rivals approaching their own point of no return, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to fall off the radar.
But Harb argues that whatever new alliances might be forged between the GCC and Israel, and however the Iranian conflict plays out, the region will not find lasting peace until it solves the Palestinian dilemma.
“To me the Palestinian question remains the most important political and strategic question for the Arab world,” he said. “Obviously Israel has the strength and power, but in the end it’s all going to be for nothing. Human beings, especially today, we have developed in such a fashion that no occupation lasts, no exclusionary ideologies really succeed, and in the end it all collapses.”
About the Author
Paige Aarhus is a journalist and analyst who has written from East Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and India. She is currently studying at Sciences Po in Paris. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.