Among Arabs, a Muted Response to Netanyahu’s West Bank Vow

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BEIRUT — At one time, if the prime minister of Israel had vowed to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, the unilateral promise would have set off outrage across the Arab world.

Not today.

The reasons for the muted response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pre-election promise on Tuesday were many: It was seen as a late-game appeal by Mr. Netanyahu to right-wing voters. Israel already has de facto control of the territory in question. And the Palestinian cause no longer stirs passions across the region as it once did.

“Yes they care,” the Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab said of Arabs in other countries. “But will they move their troops? No. Are they going to withdraw their money from American banks? No.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s vow comes after strategic shifts in the Middle East have pushed the Palestinian cause down the priority list of many Arab leaders and their people. It also follows President Trump’s endorsement of a number of unilateral steps by Israel toward other disputed territories.

Across the region, Arab states like Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Iraq are still reeling from the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings and the fight against the Islamic State, leaving them more focused on internal issues. And Persian Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia, which once staunchly backed the Palestinians, now worry more about Iran’s regional influence, a concern they share with Israel.

Those changes have left the Palestinians with fewer Arab allies willing to stand up for their cause.

“For the most part, the Palestinian issue has fallen off the agenda,” said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a book about American involvement in the conflict.

Arab leaders may also avoid denouncing Mr. Netanyahu and his plans because they are unwilling or unable to confront him.

“It raises expectations,” Mr. Elgindy said. “If they say, ‘We oppose this. This is terrible,’ then there is an expectation from their people that they will do something about it.”

That does not mean that the Arab public does not care, he said. Support for the idea of a Palestinian state is a rare issue that still generates broad consensus across the Arab world, even if people’s ability to campaign for it is limited.

The issue is particularly sensitive for Jordan, a close United States ally that has a peace treaty with Israel but sits across the Jordan River from the very territory Mr. Netanyahu seeks to annex.

On Tuesday, Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, criticized Mr. Netanyahu’s vow on Twitter as “a serious escalation that undermines all peace efforts.”

“It’ll lead to more violence & conflict,” he wrote.

Mr. Trump’s unambiguous support for Israel over the Palestinians also played a role.

While previous presidents sought to maintain an air of American impartiality and often met with Palestinian officials as part of the effort to support a two-state solution, Mr. Trump has cast his lot with the Israelis. He has not met with Palestinian leaders and ordered the closing of the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mr. Trump has also changed American policy by endorsing unilateral Israeli actions toward disputed territories.

He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the United States Embassy there, a departure from the previous United States position that the status of the city should be determined through negotiations. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their hoped-for state.

Mr. Trump also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Mideast war.

Since Arab reaction to those moves was muted, Mr. Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley promise was unlikely to stir waves in the region, said Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

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