What to make of Mahmoud Abbas’ trip to Ankara and Saudi Arabia

Mahmoud Abbas. (Photo: Tamar/Shutterstock)

The visit of a Swedish-educated Palestinian president to Turkey, on his first trip abroad since Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, is a sign of just how much the balance of power is shifting in the Middle East. It confirms what many have suspected for years — that Israel has lost the greater strategic battle that dominated the region for 70 years.

Mahmoud Abbas’ trip to Ankara will not be a blow to Israel, even though Israel claims that, through the Saudi crown prince’s actions on Jerusalem, it has undermined ties between the two countries. Hamas had also branded the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “terrorist” in the days before Abbas’ visit, suggesting that Riyadh’s actions are spreading support and hope for Palestinian unity.

Turkey is not to be underestimated, though, and for Abbas to arrive in Ankara suggests that it is now willing to talk with other regional parties. It shows that the kingdom’s moves on Jerusalem have tapped into a Jewish and Turkish sentiment for Palestine that goes beyond the Israeli security establishment’s extreme right-wing version of history.

This new Arab reality means that Israel — along with the United States, which is pushing for a plan on Jerusalem — will have to adjust the way it views its Arab neighbors. Abbas’ trip to Ankara is an acknowledgment of this new reality, one that has already begun to alter the way the United States looks at the region. Israel has dramatically shored up its ties with the countries on the right flank of the Arab world in recent months.

On Feb. 24, Vice President Mike Pence visited the Saudi kingdom, home to the region’s richest religious figures, including King Salman. The king and his entourage poured billions of dollars into Israeli markets, from agriculture to the troubled agricultural sector. The Saudi king has called for the unification of the Palestinian territory, and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, his two allies, have seen little faith in efforts by other Arab countries to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For Israel, it will be complicated to move forward with Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and moves by some Palestinian leaders, who believe they should make peace with Israel but have not been able to reach a viable solution for decades. Mahmoud Abbas may say that the Oslo Accords were a failure, but he was never a true partner for peace.

The king’s willingness to talk, even in an informal way, with Hamas, a terrorist organization until recently, suggests that Arabs may now be opening up to the idea of recognizing the Palestinian state and pursuing reconciliation. In addition, it’s reasonable to assume that the king, Egypt’s Abdul Fattah el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah will oppose Israeli settlements on the West Bank, something Trump has yet to make explicit.

Trump’s decision on Jerusalem will have a long-term impact on the region, and he will have to make difficult decisions as the situation changes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the broader Arab world. If he fails to resist pressures to normalize relations with Israel, he will be leaving a void in an unstable part of the world.

From 2010 until 2017, Israel steadily made progress on settlements and infrastructure, but it was a political game of chicken with the Obama administration. When it comes to settlements, Netanyahu will have to make difficult decisions about whether to alienate the region and disrupt alliances in order to show Trump that it is for Israel to make concessions. The Saudis have been leading the charge behind a political campaign to accelerate the opening of the Palestinian state, and it will be more difficult to deny that the role of the Middle East’s leading Sunni party in this campaign will in some way affect U.S. diplomacy. As long as the balance of power remains shaky, Trump will have to make decisions on Jerusalem that differ from the vision of his advisers.

Jerusalem is the center of Israel, but it is also the center of Palestinian nationalism. Will Israeli leaders be prepared to return to the diplomatic table and make concessions that would save the two-state solution? If they don’t, there will be big diplomatic fights to come, which will test U.S. power across the region.

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