Towards the end of their press conference on February 15, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald J. Trump hinted at their evolving strategy to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict and broader Arab-Israeli differences through a regional approach.
Netanyahu: And I believe that the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach from involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians. And I greatly look forward to discussing this in detail with you, Mr. President, because I think that if we work together, we have a shot.
Trump: And we have been discussing that, and it is something that is very different, hasn’t been discussed before. And it’s actually a much bigger deal, a much more important deal, in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory. So, I didn’t know you were going to be mentioning that, but that’s—now that you did, I think it’s a terrific thing and I think we have some pretty good cooperation from people that in the past would never, ever have even thought about doing this. So we’ll see how that works out.
As the new US administration pursues its discussions with the Israeli government, Trump may wish to ask his advisers to study the various multilateral approaches to Middle East peacemaking that have been attempted since the 1991 Madrid Conference. They offer some lessons on the possibilities, as well as the limits of multilateral approaches to what are essentially bilateral conflicts. The Israelis are well aware of these past attempts as they were both the main supporters and potential beneficiaries of them.
In January of 1992, a Multilateral Peace Process was launched in Moscow. It involved thirty-six countries, including a number of Arab countries that did not have diplomatic ties to Israel—Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. An elaborate structure of working groups on water, refugees, disarmament, environment, and economic development met regularly over the next several years and allowed numerous direct contacts between Israeli and Arab experts and diplomats.
Four Middle East and North Africa economic summits that took place between 1994 and 1997 were also an attempt to bring Israeli leaders together with their Arab counterparts to fortify the bilateral negotiations with a future vision of regional economic cooperation. This process produced considerable planning for a Middle East development bank.
The principal rationale for these multilateral mechanisms was to provide confidence to the Israeli public that, as their government pursued bilateral negotiations with the Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians, there would also be a process underway to ensure that Israel would be accepted as a legitimate state by virtually all of the Arab states, not just those bordering Israel. The label for that acceptance is “normalization,” and it continues to be a critical goal of Israel’s foreign policy. At its essence, Israel and Israelis simply want to be treated as “normal” in the Middle East, and the United States has been the principal outside proponent of normalization.
In the 1990s, these grand multilateral efforts were complemented by regular efforts to bring Israeli and Arab leaders together for high-level negotiations. The Egyptian government hosted a number of these meetings, mainly focused on how to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track of the bilateral talks, or at least how to overcome the regular crises in these negotiations.
By the July 2000 Camp David Summit involving then US President Bill Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and follow-up talks in Taba, Egypt, in January 2001, it had become clear that the Israelis and Palestinians were not going to reach a peace agreement. By this point, the multilateral efforts, which were all along designed to support progress on the bilateral side, were slowly fading away. Arab states were not willing to normalize relations with Israel without clear bilateral progress. Israel and Jordan reached an agreement during this period, but there was no comprehensive peace with Israel’s neighbors.
The various attempts to help sustain bilateral peace talks with a structure of regional, multilateral initiatives may have had some impact on improving the atmosphere for bilateral progress, but it is difficult to measure today, and these attempts are largely forgotten by anyone except those directly involved.
The current Israeli thinking about a regional approach is based on another premise—that Israel and some Arab states have a shared security interest in countering Iran. Netanyahu was likely referring to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and perhaps Qatar when he spoke at the White House about “our newfound Arab partners.” Although it is likely that these countries have received some intelligence from Israel on Iran, none has acknowledged any links or claimed any broad commonality of interest, much less referred to Israel as a newfound partner. Egypt has diplomatic relations with Israel, but its interests vis-à-vis Iran are by no means identical to the interests of the Gulf countries, and even in the Gulf, the six Gulf Cooperation Council members have significantly different approaches to Iran.
It is a stretch to claim that Israel and a significant number of Sunni Arab states share a security interest and emerging strategy toward Iran. It is an even further stretch to believe that exploiting any commonalities would somehow translate into progress with the Palestinians. If we know nothing else about Arab-Israeli peacemaking, we know that leadership and political courage are the critical elements. The Egypt and Jordan treaties with Israel are clear evidence of the need for leaders to take genuine risks to achieve agreements. A telling indication that Netanyahu may not possess the leadership skills to manage the risks of peacemaking is his recently-reported rejection of a regional agreement proposed by the United States, Jordan, and Egypt in 2016.
Current discussions of how to squeeze the Palestinians into an agreement from the outside in might be a good formula for the Israelis to delay inevitable difficult decisions, but not so much a formula for peace, bilateral or regional.
Richard LeBaron is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. A retired career diplomat with more than thirty years of experience, LeBaron served in the United States and abroad, including as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, from September 2001 to July 2004. In the mid-1990s, he directed US involvement in the Middle East Multilateral Peace Process.