The Middle East peace process has been the bane of many US presidents. Each comes in with their own ‘unique’ approach, navigating the lobbying of AIPAC, Israel’s constant tantrums, the relentless fervour of Hamas, and the inconsistency of Fatah.
The problem in and of itself is not complex. Israel is an occupying force on Palestinian territory. What complicates the issue is the desire of the United States to transform Israel’s status from that of an occupier to a legitimate entity with full moral and legal rights to the occupied land.
The US approach has therefore never been impartial. The starting point has always been for the Palestinians to give up their right to large swathes of land and to accept that they have been kicked out. In order to force the Palestinians into this position, Israel has militarily crushed the Palestinian movement with tacit approval from Washington. The proof of this is undeniable. The US has intervened militarily with air strikes to protect the Libyans from Gaddafi, the Iraqis from Saddam, Kuwait from Iraq, and the Syrians from Assad, but has remained resoundingly silent during Israeli aggression on the remaining Palestinian groups defending their ever-decreasing territory they possess. The intention is clear; to ensure a weak Palestinian movement on whom an almighty Israeli state can be forced on.
Despite this, the US approach has, until recently, been limited somewhat due to the overwhelmingly pro-Palestine sentiment in the Arab World. This sentiment has often led to eruptions of anger, violence, and chaos during more sensitive times in the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Moreover, the US desire to maintain Arab allies in the region to protect US interests has meant seeking to adopt policies on Israel-Palestine which, although antagonising, are not enough to put these allies in impossible situations domestically.
This delicate balancing act has been maintained for decades until Trump. So, what changed?
Put simply, US officials have sensed a golden opportunity to finally move the goal-posts from forcing Palestinians to accept the surrender of already seized lands, to accepting Israel’s claim of a divine right to these lands. Such a move would have been unthinkable under previous regimes as it would have forced the Arab allies into adopting tougher measures against Israel in order to appease the insatiable rage of their domestic populations. The Arab allies would have found themselves in such a desperate state to appease public opinion that a do-or-die environment would have emerged in which anything would be possible; including a return to the days of the 1973 oil embargo and possible military skirmishes.
However, the political landscape has shifted. Israel is no longer public enemy number one for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and Syria. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are worse and have diverted resources to undermining the movement (Hamas has been placed on Saudi and UAE’s terrorism black-list). The deafening silence in the last Israel-Gaza war spoke volumes as to the deep-seated hatred the kingdom has for the movement. In other words, the enemy of my enemy is my friend; as long as Israel targets Hamas, Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear content to watch Gaza burn.
Qatar has suffered a blow to its regional influence following the Arab Spring with Aljazeera not as influential as it once was. Seen by many as heavily politicised since 2011, the channel no longer has the overwhelming power to fan the flames of discontent that might have led to irresistible domestic pressure forcing Arab leaders into a tough stance against the US’s pro-Israel stance. Qatar also remains ambiguous towards Israel, being the only Arab state to receive a sitting Israeli president and recently inviting Erel Margalit to join former Arab ministers in a discussion on the future of the Middle East economy. Moreover, it remains heavily engaged in a war of influence with Saudi Arabia and damage limitation following the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that it gambled on.
Erdogan in Turkey has been, and remains, heavily pre-occupied with putting out fires from the Kurdish movements for independence which have been exacerbated by the Syria conflict, diplomatic tension with Russia, a domestic attempted coup, and a slowing economy.
In Egypt, Sisi’s desire to pull the country out of regional disputes to sort out his domestic situation has seen him adopt a policy of appeasement. His coup against the Muslim Brotherhood won him plaudits in Tel Aviv and he hit home his desire for warmer relations by adopting an aggressive anti-Palestine policy by closing the Rafah crossing, demolishing the underground tunnels that Mubarak had turned a blind eye to, and exacerbating an already suffocating blockade forcing Hamas into a state of desperation.
With Libya, Syria and Yemen in a civil war, Algeria desperately seeking to stem domestic discontent while it handles a succession struggle, Iraq recovering from its war with ISIS and re-aligning the domestic power balance, the Arabs are no longer in a position to be an effective advocate for the Palestinian cause.
From the US perspective, such an environment is unprecedented and creates new possibilities. Washington can viably impose new, irreversible conditions on the Palestinians thereby advancing the overall aim of legitimising Israeli control of occupied territory. In other words, declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is not necessarily a pro-active initiative by the US, but a reaction to such a favourable situation that perhaps former US presidents wish had been the case in their tenures.