The Trump declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the U.S. embassy there is as historically significant to Israel’s control of Jerusalem as the Balfour Declaration was to recognizing the rights of the Jewish people in Palestine.
But according to new revelations, the announcement could be part of a grander plan to help Israel wrest control of Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank, from the Palestinians for good, leaving the Arabs with their own state of Gaza only.
Anyone looking to the State Department for guidance about any of this is bound to be disappointed. Foggy Bottom’s first public defense of the president’s blockbuster announcement would have been laughable if it weren’t so depressing. Indeed, Thursday’s State Department briefing, starring good soldier David Satterfield, could have been pilfered from the popular British comedy “Yes, Prime Minister.”
Satterfield, a highly regarded professional who has labored for 40 years in the barren vineyards of Middle East diplomacy, channeled the show’s star dissembler, Sir Humphrey Appleby. The acting assistant secretary did Sir Humphrey proud—he talked and talked and said nothing at all.
Thankfully, far more instructive insights about the linkage between the announcement and Trump’s broader plans for the region were provided to TAC by a senior Palestinian official last week. This official was briefed on the details of the surprise meeting last month between Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO), and Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s heir to the throne.
The 82-year-old Abbas was summoned to Riyadh on November 6 by the 32-year-old MBS as part of the latter’s high-powered effort to engineer a joint Arab-U.S. offensive against Iran and its allies. He was not the first Arab leader to be invited. Days before his arrival, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was strong-armed by MBS into a sudden, though short-lived, resignation as part of the anti-Iran offensive.
MBS was in high dudgeon, according to the source, as he is playing a high-stakes gamble to cement both his leadership and his corollary offensive. On this score, MBS announced that the Arab Peace Initiative (API)—a Saudi-sponsored grand bargain promising Arab recognition of and peace with Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with east Jerusalem as its capital—is effectively dead.
It’s time for Plan B, declared the crown prince: a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, fattened by undetermined Egyptian transfers of land in the Sinai Peninsula. When the startled Palestinian leader asked about the place of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in this scheme, MBS replied, “We can continue to negotiate about this.”
“What about Jerusalem, the settlements, [West Bank] Areas B and C?” Abbas pressed.
“These will be issues for negotiation, but between two states, and we will help you.”
According to the source, MBS offered the Palestinian leader $10 billion to sweeten the bitter pill he had just prescribed. “Abbas can’t say no [to the Saudis],” the source explained, “but he can’t say yes.”
The New York Times, reporting its own version of the meeting on December 3,confirmed through Palestinian, Arab, and European sources privy to Abbas’s side of the conversation that MBS offered “vastly increased financial support for the Palestinians, and even dangled the possibility of a direct payment to Mr. Abbas, which they said he refused.” In that Times piece, sources said the offer Abbas could only refuse involved a Palestinian state with “noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory (Gaza).” The vast majority of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal by most of the world, would remain.
So who put the “Gaza-Plus” idea into MBS’s head? The genealogy is not hard to decipher, and it can be traced to one place only: Israel.
The creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza has long been viewed by key Israeli officials as a way of compelling Arab acquiescence to Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Various iterations of the idea have been bouncing around Israel’s right wing for almost two decades.
All share a desire for an agreement by Israel’s Arab neighbors to cede territories in order to enable Israel to gobble up the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Former Netanyahu aide and NSC head Uzi Arad and his successor Giora Eiland—along with other Israelis who served with Netanyahu—have mooted this solution. For their patrons, Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Jerusalem is an absolute non-starter.
How then to communicate this Israeli idea to Riyadh at the very moment when Trump and Netanyahu were finalizing understandings related to the Trump declaration on Jerusalem?
Only days before the MBS-Abbas meeting, U.S. envoys Jared Kushner (the president’s son-in-law and majordomo) and Jason Greenblatt (the Trump Organization’s former lawyer and current Mideast peace envoy) traveled to Riyadh for late-night deliberations with the crown prince.
Kushner, as we know, is a longstanding friend of Netanyahu’s—he even led his parents’ foundation to funnel money to the West Bank settlements. He travels in circles where Jerusalem as “the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish People” and the “Gaza Plus” idea are common currency. Gaining Kushner’s support for the proposals as the basis for a new American strategy that places an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem in the deep freeze is like pushing on an open door.
Kushner, who is said to have bonded with his fellow thirty-something royal, is MBS’s best source for all things Israeli. Assuming that Kushner and MBS are on the same page regarding the Gaza scheme, and the MBS-Abbas meetings suggest they are, their agreement adds a new and troubling dimension to Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.
Such a U.S.-Saudi understanding is consistent with the Saudis’ effective abandonment of their own Arab Peace Initiative. The Saudi leader himself undermined a key element of that proposal when, in April 2016, Saudi Arabia agreed to join the Israel-Egypt strategic partnership established by their peace treaty without Israeli concessions on a Palestinian state, as the price for reestablishing Saudi control over the strategic Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir.
The source noted that MBS himself wrote a formal letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outlining the unprecedented Saudi pledge to participate—along with Egypt, Israel, and the United States—in upholding the security terms of the historic peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
That decision, and the letter, could be understood in Israel as a practical demonstration that Saudi Arabia was indeed prepared to engage with Israel without any quid pro quo requiring a Palestinian state, in Gaza, Jerusalem, or indeed anywhere.
A call by TAC to the Saudi embassy went unreturned on Monday. The White House denied the plan to the New York Times, as did the Saudi government, and an Abbas spokesman called the reported Saudi offer “fake news” that “does not exist.”
Nevertheless, the details of the meeting were confirmed by several people to TAC and the Times, and they provide some badly needed context to the Jerusalem declaration. Confident of Saudi support for the Gaza option and its historic agreement to strategic collaboration with Washington, Egypt, and Israel independent of progress on Palestine, Trump can be forgiven for assuming a Saudi carte blanche in his effort to remake the Middle East, with recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem at its center.
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.