Trump’s hopes for Middle East peace founder

17 September 2018
A quarter of a century after the Oslo accords, Riyadh still holds the key to Middle East peace

On 23 May 2017, US President Donald Trump said Saudi Arabia’s King Salman had told him in Riyadh earlier that week that he was ready for Middle East peace and America was planning to make it happen.

The statement could have been made by every US president since 1945. What Trump, speaking from Israel, did not seem to know is that Saudi Arabia has been the most influential critic of previous American peace-making efforts.

In 1979, Egypt signed a deal normalising relations with Israel. Hopes soared in the US that the kingdom would follow suit, but Riyadh said no.

In 1981, Crown Prince Fahd, who was to become king the following year, unveiled a plan calling for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Arab land including East Jerusalem, the dismantling of Israel’s settlements and for a Palestinian state. It was later adopted by the Arab League.

A decade later, Riyadh made another significant move by attending the multilateral October 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid.

From the start, Saudi Arabia was sceptical about the Oslo process, which was launched outside of the Madrid framework in September 1993, because it failed to tackle all issues at the same time and focused on bilateral deals with the Palestinians and Jordan. Twenty-five years later, its defects are indisputable.

The next Saudi initiative was the Abdullah plan, named after then Crown Prince Abdullah. It was endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 during the second intifada sparked by Palestinian frustration with the Oslo process. It built on the Fahd plan by calling on the normalisation of relations between Arab states and Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, and a settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem.

And the kingdom’s policy has not changed since. This is why President Trump’s own plan will get an icy greeting in Riyadh when it is eventually unveiled, and why it should not come as a surprise.

Since King Salman said he wanted peace, Trump has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; done nothing about more West Bank settlements; cut support for UNWRA, which sustains millions of Palestinian refugees; pressed Jordan to form a confederation with the West Bank that involves separating it politically from Gaza; and closed the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s offices in the US.

King Salman rejected Trump’s Jerusalem move and he has been eloquently silent ever since, because Riyadh has nothing to say. Trump’s plan, if it ever appears, is unacceptable. And without Saudi support, no deal can happen.

The present occupant of the White House is unique. But he will not be the first to learn that truth the hard way.

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