President Trump and his advisers, venturing for the first time into the fraught world of Middle East peacemaking, are developing a strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would enlist Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to break years of deadlock.
The emerging approach mirrors the thinking of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who will visit the United States next week, and would build on his de facto alignment with Sunni Muslim countries in trying to counter the rise of Shiite-led Iran. But Arab officials have warned Mr. Trump and his advisers that if they want cooperation, the United States cannot make life harder for them with provocative pro-Israel moves.
The White House seems to be taking the advice. Mr. Trump delayed his plan to move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem after Arab leaders told him that doing so would cause angry protests among Palestinians, who also claim the city as the capital of a future state. And after meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan last week, Mr. Trump authorized a statement that, for the first time, cautioned Israel against building new West Bank settlements beyond existing lines.
“There are some quite interesting ideas circulating on the potential for U.S.-Israeli-Arab discussions on regional security in which Israeli-Palestinian issues would play a significant role,” said Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I don’t know if this is going to ripen by next week, but this stuff is out there.”
The discussions underscore the evolution of the new president’s attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as he delves deeper into the issue. During the campaign and the postelection transition, Mr. Trump presented himself as an unstinting supporter of Israel who would quickly move the embassy and support new settlement construction without reservation. But he has tempered that to a degree.
The notion of recruiting Arab countries to help forge an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians — known as the “outside-in” approach — is not a new one. As secretary of state under President George Bush, James A. Baker III organized the first regional conference in 1991 at which Arab leaders sat down with Israel’s prime minister. President George W. Bush invited Arab leaders to a summit meeting with Israel in Annapolis, Md., in 2007. And President Barack Obama’s first special envoy, George Mitchell, spent months in 2009 trying to enlist Arab partners in a joint effort.
The difference is that in the last eight years, Israel has grown closer to Sunni Arab nations because of their shared concern about Iranian hegemony in the region, opening the possibility that this newfound, if not always public, affiliation could change the dynamics.
“The logic of outside-in is that because the Palestinians are so weak and divided — and because there’s a new, tacit relationship between the Sunni Arabs and Israel — there’s the hope the Arabs would be prepared to do more,” said Dennis B. Ross, a Middle East peace negotiator under several presidents, including Mr. Obama.
That is a departure from the countervailing assumption that if Israel first made peace with the Palestinians, it would lead to peace with the larger Arab world — the “inside-out” approach. That was at the core of President Bill Clinton’s attempts to bring the two sides together and was Mr. Obama’s fallback position after his efforts to find Arab partners failed.
Mr. Netanyahu, who is due at the White House on Wednesday, has been talking about an outside-in approach for a while. His theory is that the inside-out approach has failed. And so, he argues, if Israel can transform its relationship with Sunni Arab nations, they can ultimately lead the way toward a resolution with the Palestinians.
Jared Kushner, the senior White House adviser whom Mr. Trump has assigned a major role in negotiations, has been intrigued by this logic, according to people who have spoken with him. Mr. Kushner has grown close to Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador and a close confidant of Mr. Netanyahu’s. Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner also had dinner at the White House on Thursday night with Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, who is a key supporter of Mr. Netanyahu.
A series of telephone conversations and personal meetings with Arab and regional leaders in recent weeks have also shaped Mr. Kushner’s thinking and that of the president. Mr. Trump has talked with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt; King Salman of Saudi Arabia; Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates; and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Mr. Kushner has also met with Arab officials, including Yousef Al Otaiba, the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates.
King Abdullah II of Jordan seems to have played a particularly pivotal role. Concerned that an embassy move would anger the many Palestinians living in his country, the king rushed to Washington without an invitation, in a gamble that he could see Mr. Trump. He visited first with Vice President Mike Pence, who had him over for breakfast at his official residence last week. The king appealed to the administration’s fixation with the Islamic State, arguing that the United States should not alienate Arab allies who could help.
Several days later, the king buttonholed Mr. Trump on the sidelines of the National Prayer Breakfast and made a similar case. He advised against a radical shift in American policy and emphasized the risks that Jordan would face if Israel were to become even more assertive about building settlements, according to people who spoke with Mr. Kushner and Stephen K. Bannon, the chief White House strategist.
Mr. Trump had already decided by that point to slow down the embassy move — a decision that did not especially trouble Mr. Netanyahu and his team, who, while publicly supporting a move, privately urged caution to avoid a violent backlash. The administration had also received reports from American diplomats in Jordan that the threat level for a terrorist attack there had been raised to the highest level in years.
But a series of announcements of new settlement construction worried some White House officials, who thought Mr. Netanyahu was taking action without first meeting with Mr. Trump.
Within hours of Mr. Trump’s meeting with King Abdullah, the administration leaked a statement to The Jerusalem Post saying, “We urge all parties from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements.”
After that was posted online, the White House issued a public statement with softened language: “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
It was worded in a way that let different parties focus on different parts. The “may not be helpful” phrase was the first time Mr. Trump had warned against new housing in the West Bank.
But the “beyond their current borders” phrase suggested a return to George W. Bush’s policy of essentially acquiescing to additional construction within existing settlement blocs as long as Israel did not expand their geographical reach or build entirely new settlements. Elliott Abrams, one of the authors of that policy under Mr. Bush, is poised to become deputy secretary of state under Mr. Trump.
Mr. Netanyahu’s team focused on that part of the statement. “I happen to know they were very pleased with the statement because it was such a contrast from Obama,” said Morton A. Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America, who has been supportive of the Trump administration.
Indeed, undeterred, Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition pushed through Parliament a bill to retroactively authorize thousands of homes in the West Bank that even under Israeli law had been built illegally on Palestinian-owned land.
Mr. Klein, who argues that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, said the White House had made the statement too confusing to provide clear direction. “I did find it ambiguous, and not as clear as I would like it to be,” he said.
The challenge now is whether Mr. Trump can use this ambiguity to his benefit. If the United States can extract gestures from the Arabs, then that could provide a basis for Israelis and Palestinians to make compromises that they could not do by themselves, Mr. Ross said.
“You’d have to have some kind of parallel approach,” he said. “This would be a serious investment of diplomacy to probe what is possible.”
This article was published by the NY Times and may be found here.