Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Arab upheaval and Trump - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

Egypt rejoiced Monday in light of what has been described by Cairo as "Trump's sun shining anew on Egypt-U.S. relations after many years of darkness."

The Arab pilgrimage to the White House is now officially underway, following Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's meeting with U.S. President's Donald Trump in Washington on Monday. Jordan's King Abdullah will then arrive in Washington on Wednesday, followed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas later this month. 

One would be hard-pressed to overestimate the value in these meetings. After all, el-Sissi avoided visiting the White House during Barack Obama's presidency, or more precisely, Obama did not invite him to visit. No wonder, then, that Egypt rejoiced Monday in light of what has been described by Cairo as "Trump's sun shining anew on Egypt-U.S. relations after many years of darkness." 

Thus Washington returns to playing a central role in the Middle East, as befits a world power with a significant military presence in the region that provides billions of dollar in assistance to many Arab states. This also serves to insert order and proportion to the Middle East map, which Russia has relied on Iran to help reshape. After all, Russia cannot truly compete with the U.S. for the hearts and minds of the Arab states. It does not have Washington's economic resources, nor its military power or presence. And besides, Moscow carries substantial Iranian baggage. 

The Arab leaders visiting Trump this week do so immediately after attending the Arab League summit in Jordan. Following years of paralysis, the result of the Arab Spring and the collapse of a number of Arab states that ensued, the summit's greatest accomplishment was the fact that it even took place to begin with.

But just because Arab leaders attended the summit does not mean they have taken a unified approach, let alone reached anything resembling a genuine agreement on the matters at hand. The Arab states disagree on the question of Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and find it difficult to formulate a unified line on Iran. As a result, conference participants preferred to pay lip service to the only subject on which they are in agreement -- the Palestinian issue. 

But while Abdullah spoke pompously of the Palestinian question as the central and in fact sole issue for the Arabs, he did so after making the interesting choice of hosting the talks not in the Jordanian capital of Amman, but at an isolated tourist spot on the shores of the Dead Sea. This was, of course, on account of the threat of an attack by the Islamic State group. As everyone knows, this is the central threat the Hashemite kingdom faces, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On the eve of el-Sissi's meeting with Trump, extensive media reports indicated that the Arab leaders had decided to work together to press Trump to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, on the basis of the Arab framework for peace. But it is doubtful there is any credence to the reports. For further proof, one need only reference the official statements from the government in Cairo, which reiterated that el-Sissi was in Washington to discuss Egyptian interest, such as the war on terror, Egypt's struggling economy and Iran.

Faced with all these challenges, Israel's importance as a loyal and valued strategic partner with whom Egypt already maintains close cooperation is obvious. Both Egypt and Jordan are interested in ensuring, and even promoting and deepening, their strategic cooperation with Israel. The U.S. has an important role in establishing regional cooperation, along the lines of the strategic alliance that is slowly forming in the region over the common threats that Israel and the Arab states face. Such an alliance could help advance talks between Israel and the Palestinians, as long as they are not taken hostage by the whims of the Palestinians.

The combination of a new boss in the White House and upheaval in the Arab world, along with the challenges facing countries like Egypt and Jordan, is what ensures a fresh start in Israeli-Palestinian relations on the basis of Israel's deepening cooperation with the Arabs.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


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