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Opportunity for cooperation between Israel and Arabs has never been greater

David Ignatius on

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is exploring new approaches for easing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that build on talks with a budding Sunni Arab coalition of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan.

Jared Kushner, the White House senior adviser and presidential son-in-law, visited the leaders of all four countries during his Middle East trip this week. He was accompanied by special envoy Jason Greenblatt and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell. The group came away hopeful that the new generation of Arab leaders is a potential "game-changer," said a senior administration official.

Prince Khaled bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, gave an upbeat account of the talks with Kushner. He said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his older brother, "is optimistic in light of the commitment of Donald Trump to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians." He said this week's visit "cemented Saudi and other Arab officials' respect" for Kushner and his team, who organized Trump's visit to the kingdom in May.

A first step in the new Palestinian strategy involves Gaza, which under Hamas has been Israel's most implacable adversary. The moderate Sunni coalition has tried to pull Hamas closer to Egypt and the UAE, and increase Hamas' distance from Qatar, which for years has been a major financial backer.

The goal is to broker a reunification of Gaza with the Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, so that a united PA could represent all Palestinians. This would be a key step toward resuming broader negotiations.

The Trump administration seems to envision an "outside-in" strategy for breaking the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate. The U.S., it's hoped, could eventually bring together Israelis and leaders of the major Arab states for a peace conference. Trump's unusually close relations with both Israel and the Gulf Arabs are part of this strategy.

The Gaza opening by the moderate Arabs is an unlikely offshoot of their bitter feud with Qatar, Turkey and other nations that support the Muslim Brotherhood militants who have long dominated Hamas.

Mohammed Dahlan, a Gazan Palestinian now living in the UAE, has been the key intermediary. He has traveled to Gaza and organized UAE-financed humanitarian assistance there, working in collaboration with Yahya al-Sinwar, the head of Hamas inside Gaza. The plan is to provide economic and social support, through Egypt and with Israel's blessing, that can weaken the hard-liners' control.

"We both realized it's time to find a way out" in Gaza, Dahlan told The Associated Press last month after meeting with Sinwar, who was a childhood friend.

Dahlan's aid to Gaza is said to include about $15 million a month in food and social assistance for families, plus an unspecified additional amount for electricity and water, an Arab official told me. Israel has allowed fuel and other shipments to pass from Egypt through the border crossing at Rafah, signaling tacit support.

Dahlan and his Emirati backers have bigger plans. He told the AP that the UAE has pledged to finance a $100 million electricity plant, to be built on the Egyptian side of the border, to help power Gaza. Although Dahlan is a long-time rival of Abbas, U.S. officials insist they don't want to undermine the PA leader.

Beyond the machinations in Gaza is a larger vision for restarting a Palestinian peace process drawing on the alliance of moderate Sunni leaders. Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi already have extensive, friendly relations with Israel. Mohammed bin Zayed, the military leader of the UAE, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed don't have formal ambassadorial contacts with Israel. But they share a common enemy in Iran.

MBS, as the Saudi crown prince is known, has made some brash moves that have caused him trouble, including the war in Yemen. But he's willing to take risks on the reform side, too, including challenging the kingdom's religious establishment. Prince Khaled, the Saudi ambassador, said that MBS believes resolution of the Palestinian problem and peace with Israel "is crucial for the future of the Middle East."

"This young, dynamic leadership presents opportunities that may not have existed before," argues Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to Washington. The White House clearly shares that view.

When it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, 50 years of peacemaking history sadly warns us that a new initiative probably won't work. And Trump's domestic problems weaken his ability to deliver on Kushner's advance work. But it must be said: The opportunities for trade, investment and security cooperation between Israel and the Arabs have never been greater.

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David Ignatius' email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group


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