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Pompeo and the Middle East peace process

May 03,2018 - Last updated at May 03,2018

The new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not bide his time before embarking on a Middle East tour that took him to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan. While one would have thought that the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process was the driving force behind this prompt move, Iran, instead, seems to be topping Pompeo’s list of priorities.

According to The New York Times (April 29) “Pompeo and Palestinians have nothing to discuss”, and during the secretary of state’s visit to Israel “he did not meet a single Palestinian representative and mentioned them publicly once”. The reason, as stated by The New York Times, is that the Palestinian Authority is boycotting Washington since President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city. It stated that if there was a request for a meeting with Pompeo, the Palestinian answer would be “no”.

Al Monitor, however, tells a different story (Uri Savir, April 29). It says that Trump has instructed his peace team, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, to further engage with the parties in the region in order to advance on the Israeli-Palestinian track, and that the administration is in constant contact on the matter with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and indirectly with the Palestinians. Savir writes that “Trump will not take no for an answer from Mahmoud Abbas”. But he adds that Abbas is open to indirect communication with Washington through his Arab partners in Cairo and Riyadh.

In Amman, Pompeo’s last stop, he did actually address the Palestinian-Israeli issue, most likely in response to remarks offered by Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi during a joint press conference concluding the Jordan visit. While disagreeing with Safadi that the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the main cause of instability in the region, Pompeo did, however, confirm that a resolution to the conflict remains a priority for the Trump administration. He called on the Palestinians to return to the long-stalled peace talks with Israel and for the US to be open to a two-state solution to the conflict if both sides agree to that, adding that the White House is preparing a new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which will require the approval of both sides. In his meeting with King Abdullah, His Majesty was very clear, reaffirming the unwavering Jordanian position that the conflict should be settled on the basis of the two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of the envisaged Palestinian state.

That said, it does not detract from the fact that Iran was and remains at the top of Pompeo’s priorities.

The US has less than two weeks to decide to either stay in the Iran nuclear deal, demand radical amendments or withdraw from the nuclear deal altogether. Trump seems to be determined to follow up on his firm commitment to oppose the continuation of the deal in its present form.

Also, the Iran issue is tightly linked to many critical Middle Eastern crises. It is linked to Israel, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq.

For years, indeed decades, Israel has been remonstrating the Iranian danger as the major threat to its very existence; it views the current Iranian expansions in many parts of the region, particularly in Syria, where both Hizbollah and the Iranian forces are operating, moving closer to the Israeli eastern borders, as an additional cause of serious concern. This comes on top of Israel’s constant complaints about Iran’s support for Hizbollah and Hamas, as well as Iran’s alleged support for other terrorist activities.

On this, the Trump administration is fully supportive of Israel’s stand. Secretary Pompeo made this clear during his Israel visit. Other Arab countries view Iran in the same lens. The current US administration, as well as previous ones, tried to forge an alliance of moderate, or Sunni, Arab states with Israel on the one side against Iran and its supporters in the region on the other side. It is not unlikely that Secretary Pompeo may be pursuing the same objective.

If this proves to be the case, it could be possible therefore, that regional arrangements may have to precede any future revival of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian, or non-existing Israeli-Arab peace talks.

It is obvious that the current situation in the region, despite Palestinian disunity, mounting regional uncertainties, chaos and Arab states’ weaknesses, is far from suitable for imposing the kind of raucous settlement that addresses all of Israel’s territorial ambitions while leaving meager scraps for the Palestinians. Apparently, Israel believes that paving the way for such gross injustice can only happen by war, the very war which Israel is actually pushing for against Iran, a war that could contain the Iranian threat, disarm or even destroy Hizbollah, disarm Hamas in Gaza, liquidate the Iranian presence in Syria and curtail any Iranian influence in the Gulf region.

I have  previously argued on this page that such a dangerous undertaking would plunge the region into never-ending disastrous chaos and destruction from which no state would be able to escape. We have already experienced the pain and devastation of previous wars. This one, if it happens, would be much worse. It would unleash lethal forces of indiscriminate and uncontrollable havoc and destruction. Such a war would produce no winners: every belligerent party would end up as a loser. A better course of action for addressing the problems in the region, mainly the Arab-Israeli conflict, would be negotiations based on the rule of international law as His Majesty King Abdullah constantly calls for. Powerful states should then use their power and influence to enforce the rule of law rather than enable, promote and protect its flagrant violation.

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