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President Trump sees Iranian threat as unifying force in quest for Middle East peace

JERUSALEM– Iran is giving President Donald Trump a reason to feel optimistic about Middle East peace.

Fresh off his meetings with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia who have grown increasingly anxious about Iran’s posture in the region, Trump devoted chunks of his remarks here to knocking the Iranian regime and highlighting the silver lining to the threat he believes Iran poses: a greater potential for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

In appearances alongside the Israeli President and Prime Minister, Trump stressed his sense that the Iranian threat has brought many Arab countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, closer toward a peaceful and more collaborative relationship with Israel.

“I just left Saudi Arabia — the king. We had an amazing two days and their feeling toward Israel is really very positive. Tremendous progress has been made. I think a lot of that progress has been made because of the aggression of Iran. And it’s forcing people together in a very positive way,” Trump said alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It was very historic what took place over the last two days.”

Netanyahu said he believes Trump’s tough stance on Iran “not only helps security, but also helps propel the possibility of reconciliation and peace between Israel and a lot of folks.”

“And that will help reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said.

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority countries in the Middle East have grown closer to Israel behind the scenes in recent years, united by an equally wary perception of Iran due to its nuclear ambitions and destabilizing actions in the region. The two sides were also united in their opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal brokered by President Barack Obama.

In remarks earlier in the day with Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Trump said he sensed “such a different feeling toward Israel” from Arab countries that are still not at peace with the Jewish State.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud appeared especially eager to “see peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Trump said.

Trump has projected optimism that the time is right to reach a peace deal despite heavy skepticism from experts on the topic, and his comments about Arab leaders in the region served to bolster his case as the position of Arab governments in the Middle East weighs heavily on Palestinian decision-making.

A senior White House official told reporters on Sunday night at the end of Trump’s meetings with Saudi royalty that the administration was particularly struck by the level of cooperation between Arab leaders and Israel, saying the two sides were “cooperating incredibly well with Israel.”

“Every chance creates an opportunity,” Rivlin told Trump on Monday.

Former US officials and experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have acknowledged the increasing rapprochement between Israel and Arab enemies of Iran, but have cautioned that the political conditions between Israelis and Palestinians have gone largely unchanged in recent years.

“Many of the Gulf Arabs have increasingly awakened to the reality that their real challenge comes not from Israel, but rather from Iran, and the prospects of their uniting to do something to try to reduce their differences with Israel … creates an opportunity,” former Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell said Monday on CNN. “On the other hand, the differences between the Israelis and the Palestinians are as wide and deep as ever and there’s a high level of mistrust and hostility not just between the peoples but between the two leaders themselves.”

Trump will seek to bridge those divides as he meets with Netanyahu on Monday and heads to the West Bank on Tuesday to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said although the three men won’t meet together during Trump’s visit this week, he said he things “there will certainly be opportunities for that in the future.”

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