When he engages Arab leaders (or their stand-ins) this week at Camp David, President Obama may have no alternative but to invoke the two-state solution, but it won’t win him any hearts or minds. It can’t console them for real or perceived U.S. compromises on Iran or Syria, or approximate Washington’s enduring solidarity with the Jewish state.
Fortunately, while they will be expressing displeasure and dispassion, there’s no reason to think the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will in any way sacrifice their economic and military ties to the United States.
The last thing Israelis should be doing is celebrate Obama’s difficulties in the region. U.S. policy is hardly a zero-sum game, as if a decline in Arab relations might automatically improve Israel’s fortunes. Israelis should realize, while Arab leaders may resent Israel’s special place in the American soul, they also value Washington’s open channel to the Jewish State; when that channel suffers, so does the U.S. credibility and its capacity to help Israel. More importantly, any tension between Gulf states and the Obama administration is not going to drive them into Israel’s arms.
And yet, the Administration has turned a corner, everyone knows it, and everyone knows that everyone knows it. Before last March, no one except John Kerry was seriously holding out hope for some breakthrough. But at least everyone could refer to the “two-state solution” with a straight face. Given Netanyahu’s own Election Day comments and the generally right-leaning composition of his new government, that’s no longer a credible talking point. Anywhere.
Arab and Israeli leaders may agree that Obama has been impulsive or naive in seeking a nuclear deal with Iran, and that he’s squandered Washington’s residual capital over Syria. And they may conduct all sorts of business via second passports and third parties. And any King of Saudi Arabia would love to see Israel destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, and maybe bomb out Tehran as a bonus. But that doesn’t mean any GCC state is about to normalize with Israel absent a real deal for the Palestinians. Unlike Egypt, the Gulf states don’t need relations with Israel badly enough to cast off the Palestinians, and unlike Jordan they can’t afford the risk.
The new Saudi King, Salman, made a last-minute decision to skip the Camp David gathering, but the Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines doesn’t usually just ‘show up’ anyway, especially when there’s little substance being offered.
And yes, even the conservative and cautious Saudis aren’t above reacting on a whim. In 2013, the late King Abdullah rejected a UN Security Council seat the Saudis had assiduously pursued for years, just to show displeasure with Obama’s policies on Iran and Syria. It would take more than some backwoods Maryland barbecue to win them back.
There will be other, more ordinary deliverables the President can offer, whether adjustments to the Iran deal or increased security cooperation and new weapons systems. But a substantive deal between Israeli and Palestinian leaders would have been monumental. In today’s reality, even announcing a resumption of talks will be met with awkward silence.
Even blaming Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for that failure still leaves Israelis without a viable resolution, and without regional normalization. In eschewing the two-state solution, Netanyahu was merely verbalizing what was already widely understood.
If Israel wants real progress in Arab relations, however – if that is a priority – then it had best find a way to get Abbas back to the table rather than making lists of excuses and pipe dreams of some Gulf-Jewish alliance. If not, then not, but don’t expect some alliance of convenience with the Gulf.
As President Obama is about to see for himself, yet again, excuses and exceptionalism don’t instill confidence or establish trust. Even at this late date, that’s a lesson Netanyahu would do well to absorb.