Trump Administration's Middle East Peace Plan Highlights New Fault Lines

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Palestinian protesters burn tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Monday, May 14, 2018. Thousands of Palestinians are protesting near Gaza's border with Israel, as Israel prepared for the festive inauguration of a new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinian protesters burn tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Monday, May 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

Several weeks ago, the Trump administration unveiled its plan to bring peace to the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Termed the "Deal of the Century," the proposal is not much different than past American plans to settle the conflict. Like past proposals, it calls for a two-state solution, along with massive financial aid to modernize the economy and infrastructure of the proposed Palestinian state.

Under the agreement, Israel would retain control of approximately 85% of the disputed land. This is more generous to Israel than past proposals, since Israel would retain control of those areas that currently host Jewish settlements on the West Bank, approximately one-third of the zone. On the other hand, some portions of Israel inhabited primarily by Israeli Arabs would be added to the territory of the Palestinian state. Jerusalem, including historic East Jerusalem, would be recognized as Israel's capital.

From a practical standpoint, however, there wouldn't be much change in land ownership, other than the official status of East Jerusalem. Each side would retain control of the territory they currently control.

The Trump proposal calls for approximately $60 billion in financial assistance. Among the more notable financial-aid projects is the building of a high-speed rail link connecting the Gaza strip with the West Bank.

The Netanyahu government, which worked closely with the Trump administration, has, predictably, endorsed the plan. The Palestinian government, equally predictably, has rejected the proposal, calling it the "slap of the century." The Palestinian Authority claimed it was not consulted in the formulation of the peace proposal. In fairness to the Trump administration, it did reach out to the Palestinian government, but they refused to meet with U.S. envoys to discuss the plan.

More significant are the Middle Eastern countries that have lined up in favor or in opposition to the proposed plan. The ambassadors to the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Bahrain attended the press conference at the White House when the plan was unveiled -- the first time for such a visible and obvious show of support. Since then, the government of Saudi Arabia, along with UAE, has endorsed the proposal. So, too, have Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar and Morocco.

Jordan, on the other hand, was quick to reject the Trump proposal, albeit diplomatically. Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, in a statement published by The Jordan Times, reaffirmed that country's position in support of a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. That is the "only way to achieve long-term peace," according to Safadi.

He also warned the Netanyahu government against using the American peace proposal as diplomatic cover for annexing the 30% portion of the West Bank currently under de facto Israeli control, warning that "the dangerous consequences of unilateral Israeli measures, such as the annexation of Palestinian lands, the building and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands, and encroachments on the Holy Sites in Jerusalem, that aim at imposing new realities on the ground," are a hindrance to a long-term peace.

Not surprisingly, the government of Iran, along with those of Syria and Lebanon, was quick to denounce the agreement, calling it and its Arab state supporters a betrayal of the Palestinian people. Turkey also denounced the agreement, using similar language. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared, "Jerusalem cannot be left to the bloody claw of Israel," and described the support of Arab governments for the plan as "treasonous."

The Iraqi government has remained, at least officially, quiet on the issue.

For almost three-quarters of a century, the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict has defined the principal fault line in Middle East politics -- a fault line that has produced four wars, in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, between Israel and the frontline Arab states on its borders; several major Israeli incursions into Lebanon; and numerous Palestinian "uprisings" or Intifadas.

It has also resulted in frequent military clashes along the Israeli border and an ongoing insurgency and terrorist violence that have claimed thousands of lives. Even after Israel reached peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, and the Gulf Arab states began to cooperate with it on issues of mutual concern, they continued to publicly advocate for the restoration of a Palestinian state and to back the Palestinian governing authority.

Over the last decade, however, an increasingly aggressive Iran has resulted in a much broader common ground between Israel and many of the Sunni Arab governments in the region. The result is that the unconditional support both privately and, following the Trump proposal, publicly, of Sunni Arab governments for the Palestinians has come to an end.

The rise of Iranian influence in the region and Tehran's aggressive foreign policy -- as manifested in the development of what geopolitical strategists have called the "Shiite Arc of Influence" from Iran across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza strip, as well as Tehran's ongoing efforts to mobilize Shiite groups in the gulf and Yemen -- have produced a much broader convergence in the foreign policy and military interests between Israel and the majority of the Sunni Arab governments in the Middle East. The result is that a new Sunni-Shiite fault line has emerged in the region, one that is superimposed and which modifies the historical Palestinian-Israeli fault line.

Turkish opposition to the Trump administration's Middle East peace proposal underscores the development of yet another fault line. This fault line within the Sunni world increasingly divides the Arab states from Turkey. Under Turkish president Erdogan's leadership, Ankara has been aggressively advancing its interests in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has intervened repeatedly in the Syrian civil war, funding and supporting various militant Arab groups, including jihadists, against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

It has increasingly assumed a revisionist posture in the eastern Mediterranean, laying claim, unofficially, to Greece's Dodecanese Islands, drilling in waters claimed by the Cypriot Republic and unilaterally laying claim to vast stretches of the eastern Mediterranean Sea claimed by its neighbors. Recently, Turkey announced an agreement with the Tripoli-based government in Libya, which saw the two governments divide a broad strip of Mediterranean seabed running from northeastern Libya to southwestern Turkey, notwithstanding that their claims infringed on the exclusive economic zones claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

The Turkish government has dispatched Turkish-sponsored armed militias to help support the Tripoli-based government of national accord in Tripoli. It has also expanded its military presence in the Red Sea and,through its support of Qatar, is increasingly interjecting itself into the international affairs of the Persian Gulf region.

Under Erdogan, Turkish foreign policy has strived to position Ankara as the leader of the Sunni-Arab world. In the process, the foreign policy of the Erdogan government has increasingly become Islamist and nationalistic and extolled Turkey's Ottoman past to stoke nationalist sentiment among its citizens. Sunni-Arab governments have little use for Ankara's neo-Ottoman ambitions or its related ideography. Still, Ankara's support for Sunni Islamist political parties could prove destabilizing to those countries, such as Egypt and Morocco, which, lacking Shiite minorities, have been largely insulated from Iran's efforts to mobilize Shiite groups in support of Iran's foreign policy objectives.

Erdogan's Peace and Development Party (AKP) has long-standing ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and was itself an outgrowth of that movement. The Muslim Brotherhood is banned in most Arab countries. Moreover, under the Erdogan administration, Istanbul has become a mecca for Islamist Arab dissidents. Many have now set up broadcast facilities there and beam programming that their respective governments consider subversive. Many of these dissident movements have received financial assistance from the Turkish government or the AKP. Affter being subjected to decades of pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli rhetoric from their governments, large sections of the "Arab street" are still receptive to Erdogan's increasingly anti-Israel rhetoric.

There is one more group that has expressed its opposition to the Trump proposals -- Israeli Arabs, i.e. Arabs with Israeli citizenship living in areas that would be transferred to the new Palestinian state. Although Israeli-Arabs have often complained that they are treated as second-class citizens and that the Israeli government spends less per capita on its Arab citizens than it does on its other citizens, they have little desire to find themselves under the authority of a Palestinian government. Many point out that the Palestinian government's record on corruption, the rule of law and respect for human rights falls short of what they have experienced under Israeli rule.

The "Deal of the Century" is unlikely to bring about an Israel-Palestine peace, regardless of how much financial aid the U.S. and its Sunni Arab allies offer the Palestinian government. It will likely join the long list of past proposals that have since been relegated to the dustbin of history. It may offer the Netanyahu government diplomatic cover to annex the 30% of the West Bank that it currently directly administers, and it will further cement the status of Jerusalem and, in particular, East Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Neither development is new. Both reflect the reality on the ground. A formal Israeli annexation would, however, make the likelihood of a Palestinian state based on the West Bank and with East Jerusalem as its capital that much more remote a possibility.

What the Trump administration's Mideast proposal will accomplish is to highlight the new fault lines that are bisecting the geopolitics of the Middle East. The superimposition of fault lines bisected by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Shiite-Sunni rivalry and the increasing rivalry between Turkey and the Sunni-Arab world will add layers of complexity to Middle Eastern geopolitics that will make the core issues between Palestinians and Israelis that much harder to resolve.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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