With Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah both in Washington this week for meetings with President Trump, undoubtedly the regional solution for Middle East peace came up during their White House discussions. This approach, which has been touted for years by Prime Minister Netanyahu and now seems to be favored by Trump as well, encompasses the idea that Israel should engage with Arab states in order to come to a set of understandings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will eventually lead to Israel’s full integration into the region. Many have seized on this idea as an obvious situation in which all sides win, and from an Israeli perspective, a deal that involves the wider Middle East is far preferable to one that does not.
Nevertheless, there are serious misconceptions floating around about what a regional solution would actually entail and what is workable. As this idea gains currency in policy circles, it is important to understand that different people define it in different ways, and that some definitions are far more realistic and feasible than others.
One of the biggest sticking points is whether a regional solution involves the two-state solution. I recently watched an audience applaud a speaker who said that he favors a regional solution rather than a two-state solution, at which point he quickly interrupted his newfound fans to clarify that the former necessarily involves the latter. Many on the Israeli right, including Netanyahu, speak about a regional process that deals with other issues aside from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The theory behind this is that Israel and its neighbors have an unprecedented confluence of interests arising from a joint fear of Iranian influence, and that cooperation is inevitable. Indeed, there is already cooperation on intelligence and defense issues that takes place behind closed doors, in addition to the more public coordination that Israel has with Egypt and Jordan due to the peace treaties it has signed with both states. The thinking is that security interests will outweigh all else, and that as private relationships develop and harden over time, Israel’s acceptance by Arab states will follow irrespective of whether there is movement on the Palestinian issue or not.
Relatedly, there is confusion over whether any formal negotiating track with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and others has to involve negotiations with the Palestinians too, even if the subject of discussion is the peace process. The theory here is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is secondary to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has been going on for longer, and that the Palestinians will never fully accept Israel’s existence until the other Arab states do so first. Since the wider Arab-Israeli conflict does not include thorny issues like borders – only Syria still has a territorial dispute with Israel – it should theoretically be easier to resolve, as the parties are no longer fighting over anything tangible and the joint security and economic benefits of full diplomatic relations are too large to just throw away. In this formulation, not only does a regional solution not have to include the creation of an independent Palestine, it does not have to include the Palestinians in any way.
Using a regional solution, however, as a way to bypass two states and bypass the Palestinians entirely are both dangerous misconceptions that rest on two fundamental misunderstandings. The first is that Israel can engage with regional Arab states on its own terms entirely rather than on theirs. In order to have any type of negotiations between Israel and its neighbors, you have to get both sides to the table, and the other side has made it abundantly clear that it is unwilling to engage with Israel unless Israel also engages with the Palestinians. Netanyahu and other members of the Israeli government speak about the regional solution as a way to bypass the Palestinians, but Arab states – including Egypt and Jordan, who already have diplomatic relations with Israel – are adamant that the regional solution will only exist as a parallel track to one that Israel establishes with the Palestinians. One of the easiest ways to identify someone who has never actually read the Arab Peace Initiative or has never had a conversation with an Arab government official is if they talk about the regional process as a way to cut the Palestinians out.
To be clear, Israel does not and should not have to simply acquiesce to what the other side wants; just as the Arab states need not accept Israel’s terms, Israel need not accept theirs. But the API is premised on the creation of a Palestinian state, and Arab governments have never wavered in their public or private declarations that they will not engage with Israel at the Palestinians’ expense. Israel can decide that it has lived its entire existence without formal diplomatic relations with the bulk of its regional neighbors and that reversing this situation is not worth the price, but it is foolhardy to speak as if the price can be waived. People who want to intelligently discuss the prospects for a wider regional peace should minimally understand what it would involve.
The second misunderstanding is that Arab states’ interests will outweigh their domestic politics, or that public opinion and internal political considerations somehow don’t matter in non-democracies. It is easy to see why a state like Saudi Arabia would benefit from closer relations with Israel in spheres large and small, from using Israeli intelligence in developing a joint strategy to contain Iran to buying Israeli technology. But particularly in the wake of the failed Arab Spring revolutions, Arab regimes are highly sensitive to anything that will imperil the stability of their rule, and being seen by their citizens as having sold out the Palestinians is the fast track to domestic unrest. The ways in which these regimes cynically and instrumentally employ the plight of the Palestinians to improve their popularity while not doing anything tangible to actually help the Palestinians is legendary, but the fact that the move is a cynical one does not make it ineffective. So long as the Palestinian cause is an easy rallying cry for Arab publics, their governments are not going to normalize relations with Israel, or even embrace Israel in a limited way, until there is serious movement toward a Palestinian state.
The Israeli government can hope all it wants that this situation will change over time as Arab states view Israel as increasingly indispensable and too valuable not to engage with, but that is not the current state of affairs. If the regional solution is to materialize, it will involve a better appreciation not only of what is possible, but what is necessary.