Arab states in perilous balancing act on US peace plan

Dubai (AFP) –


Arab states have cautiously welcomed the US peace plan for the Middle East, but the balancing act aimed at appeasing their powerful ally risks provoking domestic public opinion and Palestinian ire.

The plan was unveiled in Washington on Tuesday by President Donald Trump, flanked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who greeted the proposals enthusiastically in the face of Palestinian condemnation.

The only Arab ambassadors present were from Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates -- three of Washington's closest allies in a region where many nations host US forces.

Other Arab states released carefully worded statements, in what experts said showed that the Palestinian cause has gone out of fashion and that security ties with Washington outweigh any appetite to oppose the plan.

Just weeks ago, Tehran and Washington appeared on the verge of war after the assassination of a top Iranian general. Iran responded with missile strikes on US targets in Iraq, bringing both sides to the brink.

A shared hostility to Iran has seen Arab states in the Gulf quietly move closer to Israel, further displacing the Palestinian cause from the headlines.

After the deal was unveiled, Riyadh said its support for the Palestinians was "steadfast" but that it "appreciates" the American efforts and called for the start of direct talks.

Abu Dhabi called it "an important starting point" while Cairo said it deserved a "thorough examination".

Qatar meanwhile welcomed the initiative but stressed its support for a Palestinian state "including east Jerusalem" as its capital. Jordan stressed that "the only path to peace" would be a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders.

The US plan grants Israel much of what it has sought in decades of international diplomacy, namely control over Jerusalem as its "undivided" capital, rather than a city to share with the Palestinians. The plan also lets Israel annex West Bank settlements.

And though the proposal provides for a Palestinian state, it falls far short of Palestinian hopes for a return of all the territories captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.

- 'Don't upset Trump' -

"These reactions were to be expected," said Abdallah al-Chayeji, a political science professor at the University of Kuwait.

The nearly uniform stances are forged by a desire to align with Washington against the perceived threat posed by Iran, he said.

Chayeji said the new plan "demolishes" the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative sponsored by Riyadh which specified Israel's withdrawal from Arab territory occupied in 1967 in return for peace assurances and the normalisation of relations between Arab nations and Israel.

In its response to the Middle East peace plan, Saudi Arabia mentioned the 2002 initiative, long the cornerstone of its regional policy, without elaborating on whether its stance had shifted.

Ahmed Abd Rabou, a visiting assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, described the responses of Riyadh and Cairo as "very conservative".

"They simply didn't want to upset Trump whom they ally with, but they can't upset the general public as well, so they decided to go for a middle-ground solution," he said, adding that the statements implied they disagree with many parts of the plan.

- 'Better than nothing'? -

Chayeji said that "interest in the Palestinian cause has receded on the 'Arab street' because of divisions among the Palestinians as well as America's dominance."

Views appeared to be divided on the streets of the Egyptian capital Cairo.

"I do not expect Palestinians to take the deal," said law student Toqa Ismail. "If they gave up now, it means all the decades of fighting have gone to waste."

But 48-year-old teacher Heba Mokhtar said it would be better if the Palestinians made do with less land than they originally wanted -- "it's better than nothing".

Elisabeth Kendall, a researcher at the University of Oxford, said the deal could reinvigorate violent jihadist groups.

The unveiling featured heavily on the news channel of Yemen's Iran-backed Huthi rebels, as well as that of Lebanon's Hezbollah "who frame it as proof of America's destructive interventions," she said.

The Islamic State group has already vowed to shift its focus from the remnants of its "caliphate" towards Israel, in a purported audio message by its spokesman Abu Hamza al-Quraishi earlier this week that called for the peace plan to be sabotaged.