“If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it.” — Dwight Eisenhower
When I first wrote about President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only three Sunni Arab states had signed on: Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. When the plan was announced, I had doubts whether Trump could bring his “art of the deal” to the Middle East. But yesterday the tectonic plates under the region shifted bigly, as Saudi Arabia and Egypt announced their support. In prior years, any plan with this many bitter pills for the Palestinians to swallow would have been dismissed, probably with street violence, by the wider Arab world.
Instead, the Saudi foreign minister couldn’t have been clearer when he announced, “The Kingdom reiterates its support for all efforts aimed at reaching a just and comprehensive resolution to the Palestinian cause.” The Egyptian foreign office released a statement saying, “The Arab Republic of Egypt appreciates the continuous efforts exerted by the US administration to achieve a comprehensive and just settlement of the Palestinian issue, thereby contributing to the stability and security of the Middle East, ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” The Arab streets did not erupt into well-orchestrated violence.
Trump himself expressed doubts on Tuesday, saying of the peace plan authored by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, “We’ll see what happens.” But that was before Riyadh and Cairo announced their support. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of having Saudi Arabia (the wealthiest Arab country) and Egypt (the most populous) on board with the plan’s outline, including no right of return, no surrender of Jerusalem, and Israeli annexation of the Jordan River valley. Previous peace “plans” involved sitting down with the Palestinians and trying to wring concessions out of them while the rest of the Arab world mostly sat on its hands, or even encouraged Palestinian intransigence. By presenting a take-it-or-leave-it comprehensive peace, and getting the big Arab players quickly on board, Trump and the Sunnis have cut the Palestinians retreat route off in advance. No matter what the Palestinians choose, peace or continued war, the rest of the Arab world is finally free to do what they’ve desired for years to do with the Palis: Wash their hands of them.
Most importantly, the Saudis and the Egyptians moving so quickly to jump on board illuminates the real target of Trump’s plan: The Mullahs’ regime in Iran.
To see why Iran is the target, we need to enlarge our view from how “Peace to Prosperity” (PtoP) might work locally, to how it could impact the entire region.
NOTE: The Palestinians might not agree to the plan, and even if they do, not everything will progress smoothly But as you’ll see, all of that is really beside the point of PtoP.
I wrote on Wednesday that it’s easy to understand “the Palestinian leadership’s unwillingness to give up on a struggle that has lined their pockets for generations.” But how will the Fatah and Hamas leadership keep wetting their beaks after the Sunni oil money dries up? Saudi Arabia heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman is a genuine modernizer (albeit not a reformer) who isn’t afraid to play hardball to further his interests. Snapping the wallet shut, even briefly, might be enough to get the Palestinians’ attention.
Here’s the bullet-point list of local changes, each of which has the benefit of increasing Israeli security while reducing Iran’s ability to meddle:
• Internationally recognized Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley cuts off one route for Iranian arms into the West Bank.
• Ditto Gaza and the expanded Palestinian areas on the Egyptian border, now that Egypt is a partner.
• Big buckets of Saudi + Gulf States oil money reduce Iranian influence in Palestine.
Also keep in mind that under PtoP, Palestine only becomes a state in stages, as they fulfill the plan’s conditions. Each stage further reduces Iranian influence, which in recent years has become the primary security concern of Israel and the Sunni Arab states. Jim Hanson, President of Security Studies Group and who served in U.S. Army Special Forces, wrote earlier this month:
Iraq felt a strong increase in Iranian influence after the American drawdown began under President Obama in 2009. Lebanon has always felt the touch of the mullahs through Hezbollah and that power has grown over the past decade as well. Since then the civil war in Syria and relative weakness of Hafez al-Assad’s rule in Syria allowed it to fall into Tehran’s orbit as well.
However, he adds, “Iran’s efforts all across the region are now in jeopardy and it remains to be seen if they can regain their momentum, especially given the ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions led by the United States.” I’d add that “Peace to Prosperity” is the latest — and perhaps biggest and potentially most enduring — attempt to add to that pressure.
Although faced with a common foe in Tehran, there’s always been an upper limit on how far Arab-Israeli cooperation could go, or even appear to go, so long as the Palestinian sticking point remained. A comprehensive peace plan, even one the Palestinians don’t fully adhere to, removes that sticking point and opens up new avenues of cooperation between the Arabs and Israelis against Iran.
Unlike President Barack Obama’s dead-as-a-doornail nuclear deal with Iran, PtoP won’t be so easy for some future U.S. administration to undo. This time, the benefits are frontloaded for the Israelis and Sunni Arabs, while the Palestinians will have to show improved and ongoing good behavior to get the statehood they desire and the money and development they need. They’d continue playing terrorist footsie with Iran to their own detriment.
Since 1979, it has been American policy to try and keep Tehran’s bad actors from causing too much trouble, by boxing them in with a combination of sanctions and deterrence. Obama tore that box wide open during his two terms, by removing sanctions and returning billions to the mullahs’ terrorist regime. The result was a huge expansion of Iranian influence in the region, with the Mullahs damn near completing their long-desired “Shia Crescent” across the entire Levant.
Trump moved decisively to put Tehran back in the box, by bringing back crippling sanctions, and with the recent targeted killing of terror mastermind Qasim Suleimani. By giving the Sunni Arabs and the Israelis political cover to work together under the auspices of Peace to Prosperity, Trump just shrunk the box even further, and he did it while the Mullahs are still scrambling to recover from the loss of Suleimani.
It remains to be seen if the Palestinians will play along, or how far Iran will go to sabotage the process. But as the pièce de résistance of a years-long strategic vision for the Middle East, Peace to Prosperity appears to be the work of a very stable genius.