Trump Looks for Opportunities in the Middle East Crisis
As Donald Trump prepares for his first foreign trip as president later this month, he has big plans. Beginning May 19, Trump will travel to Riyadh, Jerusalem and Rome. He hopes to find a path to peace for Israel and the Palestinians. In the Middle East's crisis, Trump sees an opportunity.
The crisis part is obvious. The region has been coming apart since his predecessor began his second term in 2013. The Islamic State has created a proto-caliphate. Iran has stepped up its support for violent radicals throughout the region. The civil war that is collapsing Syria is flooding Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Europe with millions of refugees. War rages in Yemen. The Libyan state has failed.
The opportunity is less obvious. Sunni jihadis like al Qaeda and the Islamic State and Shiite jihadis supported by Iran threaten the Gulf monarchies. But they also threaten Israel, the historic rival of these kingdoms. Now that the Arab states and the Jewish state have a common enemy, perhaps they can find common ground and agree to a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
This is the working theory at least, according to White House officials who briefed reporters Thursday on the upcoming foreign travel. One said that Trump and Arab leaders have shared objectives, and that this administration should try to solve the 70 year Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now that Israel's strategic interests aligned more closely with the Arab states.
H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, made a similar point on Tuesday evening at an Israeli Embassy event to mark the country's independence day. He said the current circumstance in the region "may allow us to resolve what some have regarded as intractable problems, problems like disputes between Israel and the Palestinians."
In some respects this approach is hardly new. As I reported in 2015, Israel and Saudi Arabia during the Obama years were deepening a quiet collaboration against Iran and Sunni jihadists. This relationship though has not come out of the closet. Like Israel's nuclear arsenal, it is well known in the region, but not officially acknowledged.
The key to normalizing Israel's quiet alliance with the Gulf kingdoms hinges on a two-state solution. When former Saudi officials have been asked about this over the years, they always say there will be no formal peace between the two countries until the Palestine file is settled.
Trump also has another advantage in this respect. Unlike Obama, he is not invested in the success of the nuclear deal with Iran. Obama's efforts to court the Iranians undermined any chance for the U.S. to bring Iran's enemies closer together. He once mused to the Atlantic that Iran and Saudi Arabia needed to learn to share the Middle East. Trump doesn't suffer from this delusion.
Unfortunately he suffers from another delusion. He believes he can forge a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, even though every president since George H.W. Bush has tried and failed. Here it's important to get some perspective.
To start, neither the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, nor the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has the political room at the moment to compromise. Abbas is 82 years old, at the end of his life, and he doesn't have any political control over Gaza, which is run by Hamas, a group that rejects negotiations with Israel. On Wednesday at the White House, Abbas said Palestinians supported a "culture of peace." But this is false. Abbas himself has praised as martyrs Palestinians killed and arrested in the recent wave of stabbing attacks. The Palestine Liberation Organization to this day pays the families of Palestinians killed or jailed for terrorist attacks. Public squares are named for the murderers of Jews. Even if Abbas wanted a peace deal, he is no position to persuade his people to accept it.
Netanyahu on the other hand presides over the most right-wing government in Israel's history. His main political rivals support the abandonment of the two-state solution altogether. The Israeli leader's supporters want him to expand settlements in the West Bank, seizing further land the Palestinians say should be preserved for their own independent state.
Another problem is that the demands of both sides are not really compatible. Abbas supports for example the return of all refugees expelled by Israel since the 1948 war. If implemented that would make the Jewish population in Israel a minority. The Israelis still consider Jerusalem its capital. The Palestinians want a portion of the city as the capital of their eventual state. The Israelis demand a semi-permanent military presence in the West Bank. The Palestinians have balked at this demand.
Eventually Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, will learn about these obstacles themselves. In the meantime Trump can take advantage of more modest opportunities in the current Middle East crisis. He could build on recent diplomatic work to get the Israelis to stick to the agreement they made with the George W. Bush administration to build only within the large settlement blocks in and around Jerusalem. Obama discarded that agreement when he came into office and pressed Netanyahu to end all construction in occupied territory, including in East Jerusalem. Trump could also press Arab leaders to pressure the Palestinian Authority to end its payments to the families of terrorists. He could encourage further cooperation between Israel and the Arab states against Iran and other terrorist groups. Finally, Trump could move forward with his plan to ease the strain on the West Bank economy as the Palestinians wait for a new generation of leadership and try to get back to the agenda of reforming the Palestinian Authority's notoriously corrupt and inefficient government institutions.
None of this is as dramatic as forging a peace deal. But it has the advantage of being possible for the moment. And who knows? If these more modest steps work, perhaps an opportunity for real peace will emerge from the current crisis.
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