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February 19, 2017

US encourages Israel-Arab alliance against Iran

Top Story

February 19, 2017

Supports ‘regional’ solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict;

remains committed to two-state solution

WASHINGTON: With a new leader in the White House bent on disrupting the status quo, could it also be time for a fresh approach to Middle East peace?

The United States this week encouraged a "regional" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, backing a proposal for the Jewish state to unite with Arab powers against Iran, their common foe.

The first meeting at the White House between President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took place on Wednesday, with the proceedings dominated by the US leader backing away from longstanding American policy of calling for a "two-state" solution.

Trump´s aides contributed to the confusion by stating that Washington remained committed to the two-state solution that remains a staple of Mideast diplomacy, but added that the administration was also open to alternative solutions.

Netanyahu was more specific in proposing a regional alliance to help attain peace in the Middle East -- a proposal that Trump called "a terrific thing" during their joint news conference on Wednesday. "We think the larger issue today is how we create the broader conditions for broad peace in the Middle East between Israel and the Arab countries," Netanyahu said Thursday on MSNBC.

"That´s something that may have a new opportunity because of the fact that many of the Arab countries now see Israel not as their enemy but as their ally in confronting the large threat of Iran and (the Islamic State group) -- that is, the twin Islamist forces that threaten all of us. That is bringing us closer together and may also help pave avenues for peace."

Trump affirmed that the United States would work "very, very diligently" on a "great peace deal" -- with his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is Jewish, expected to lead the American effort.

The US president said Netanyahu´s proposal for a regional alliance was something that "hasn´t been discussed before," noting it would take in "many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory."

More specifically, Trump´s pick for US ambassador to Israel, lawyer David Friedman, has pushed for cooperation between Israel and Arab nations in opposing Iran.

"The Gulf States, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Israelis are all united, perhaps inadvertently so, but they´re all united in a common concern about Iran. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism," Friedman said during his Senate confirmation hearing, during which he was grilled on his right-wing views.

"Trump has the potential to pull off a major diplomatic coup between Israel and the Gulf states in countering Iran´s threat," Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of research at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told AFP.

So sensitive is the issue that Israeli authorities rarely -- if ever -- specifically name Arab countries when speaking publicly on the subject, with the exception of Egypt and Jordan which have peace deals with Israel and maintain diplomatic relations.

Retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki met Israel´s then-foreign ministry director general Dore Gold in Jerusalem last July. The pair shared a stage a year earlier at a Washington think tank. At the time, they spoke of the peace process, stalled since 2014, and pledged to reinvigorate the Arab Peace Initiative.

Also known as the "Saudi initiative," the 2002 plan called for normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab states in exchange for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The initiative was revived in July 2013 by then-US secretary of state John Kerry, prior to his mediating Israeli-Palestinian talks nine months later.

But now the Trump administration has an opportunity to push for the proposed US-Israeli-Arab alliance, said Robert Satloff, executive director of conservative think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Israeli Minister Ayoob Kara, in a tweet, welcomed "the expected regional peace summit of Arab leaders in Washington. This is the new Trump-Netanyahu Middle East."