Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is paying a visit to Washington looking for clarification. Despite his long association with Donald Trump, and the overtures that Trump's election campaign made toward Israel, Netanyahu is still uncertain about many aspects of the new U.S. administration's policies toward the Middle East. The premier, who arrived Wednesday to a warm welcome from the White House, knows that despite the most generous of guarantees by Washington, the security of his nation depends as much on its pragmatic relationships with other Middle Eastern states as on the support of its longtime ally. It was Netanyahu's own reference to those relationships that prompts the more intriguing questions about the era to come in the Middle East.
Though he has not offered much clarity on his Middle East policy, Trump's public entreaty to Israel to "hold back on settlements for a little bit" suggests a more moderate stance on West Bank settlements than he outlined on the campaign trail. The White House also indicated that it would be stepping back for now from the responsibility of refereeing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. But Trump still held out hope for a deal and stressed a willingness to back any peace agreement that both sides work out. In a departure from decades of U.S. policy, Trump even distanced himself from the two-state solution as a guiding tenet for negotiations.
But despite shifts in U.S. thinking on the issue of two states, the road ahead for Israeli-Palestinian relations will still be rocky in a deeply familiar way. Netanyahu, bound by the demands of a government coalition heavily weighted to the far right, made that overwhelmingly clear today when he said Israel's conditions for peace remain unchanged. By laying out familiar parameters at odds with Palestinian positions, Netanyahu set a foundation that will enable the Israelis to blame the Palestinians for the difficulties to come in future peace talks, echoes of past attempts and failures.
During the press conference, another change — at least since Netanyahu became prime minister — became clear: Israel expects Arab states to take a lead role in guaranteeing Palestinian participation in future peace talks and is open to cooperating on security issues. For the countries of the Middle East, Iran is becoming the target of increasing animosity, and the fight against extremist terrorist groups — the Islamic State chief among them — has pushed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the background of regional issues. In Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Israel looks less and less like the villain, opening avenues for coordination in the name of counterterrorism. There is a tacit recognition among those states that continuing to excoriate Israel is a pointless strategy since U.S. support has proved unwavering.
The acceptance of Israel's existence has enabled cautious and quiet but productive relationships to form between Israel and its neighbors over many years. One such neighbor is Turkey, a Sunni state with a burgeoning influence on Palestinian politics and a growing wariness of Iran. Their shared interests add up to a possible willingness by Ankara to help Israel manage Palestinian politics alongside the Arab states. Even without Iran hawk Michael Flynn as Trump's national security adviser, the stance of the U.S. administration will remain firmly anti-Iranian, further catalyzing the potential alignment among a broad set of Middle Eastern states.
Arab involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, though minor in recent years, has not always been so. The 2002 Arab Peace Plan, which has since fallen by the wayside, was revived a couple of times by the Arab League, and the states all continue to maintain footholds in Palestinian politics. Their participation is essential to any plausible attempt to reach peace. States in the region including Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia serve critical roles in negotiations among Palestinian political parties in ways the United States never can. As a fresh attempt at holding Palestinian elections approaches, and as Hamas reshuffles its leadership, Israel will rely on its neighbors to share critical information and help shape internal Palestinian relationships.
These Middle Eastern states are key to assuring Israel's security in other ways, including tempering the ever-present threat of future offensives by Hamas and Hezbollah. In the restive Gaza Strip, it's not a question of if but when the next conflict between Hamas and Israel will occur. And in northern Israel, when the next fight with Hezbollah flares, it will pit Israel against a more experienced and capable adversary. Israel relies on Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers to moderate Hezbollah's political and military reach in Lebanon. To combat Hamas, Israel looks to its security and intelligence accord with Egypt, which shares with Israel an enmity for Hamas that has snowballed over the years. Egypt also helps Israel control the unstable Sinai Peninsula, a base for the Islamic State and other extremist groups that pose a threat to both Egyptian and Israeli security.
Greater coordination with Israel in any respect poses greater risk for the governments of Middle Eastern states whose populations are conditioned to rhetoric blaming Zionist zeal for impinging on Palestinian and Arab rights and freedoms. Jordan, for example, must walk a fine line as it works to minimize unrest within its large Palestinian population while at the same time maintaining a functional economic and security relationship with Israel. Evidence of this was clear when Jordanian King Abdullah II warned the White House last week that a policy of allowing Israel unlimited West Bank settlements plus the swift move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem that Trump has championed would be sure to anger Palestinians, sparking unrest and perhaps even planting the seeds of another intifada. Jordan has navigated another precarious situation with its recent enactment of a natural gas deal with Israel. Although it significantly lowered utility costs for the average Jordanian, the agreement still prompted anti-Israel protests in the country. Popular animosity toward Israel is the same in the other Middle Eastern states, posing similar limits on greater cooperation.
The real test of the increased strength of the U.S.-Israeli accord is yet to come. When it does, it will simultaneously measure the dexterity of overall U.S. policy in the Middle East. When one of Israel's many security concerns inevitably turns into its next crisis, it will need, and can expect, U.S. backing. But Israel will also rely on its vibrant and functional relationships with the Middle Eastern bastions of power, like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to deal with the threats posed by Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. And Israel, deeply cognizant of the risks it faces and never fully trusting even its most steadfast supporters, knows that it rests safer amid a web of allies and alliances than it would relying on the United States alone.
Editor's Note: The list of states that help negotiate among Palestinian political parties has been updated.