Who’s afraid of Donald Trump in the Middle East?
Not much can be ascertained about President-elect Donald Trump’s administration future policies for the Middle East – any more than for most other parts of the world, except that his starting points are likely to be diametrically opposed to those of Barack Obama.
It is all still in the making. The Russian policy he decides to pursue after he enters the White House and his administration is in place is as unfathomable as are the motives that led him to appoint his lawyer and close adviser, the pro-settlement David Friedman, as US ambassador to Israel.
The Democratic Party, in pain from Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Trump, is presenting him as a slavish fan of Putin and has sold this perception to much of the mainstream media.
However, it defies belief that the new president will succumb to Putin’s wiles and allow America’s global stance to be shaped in Moscow. Trump will far more likely present the Kremlin with a clear proposition for measuring Putin’s willingness to follow the Trump line. In as far as he does, the Russian leader will enjoy cooperation in Washington.
The president-elect’s approach to Israel may be equally clear-cut. In this case, the Israeli and US media joined in a front-page chorus denigrating the Friedman appointment as signaling that Donald Trump was ready to ignite a Middle East conflagration by moving the US embassy forthwith to Jerusalem, abandoning the two-station solution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute adopted by his two predecessors, and promoting Israel’s instant annexation of the settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria.
None of this can be inferred from the president elect’s statement Thursday, Dec. 15:
“Friedman has been a longtime friend and trusted adviser to me. His strong relationships in Israel will form the foundation of his diplomatic mission and be a tremendous asset to our country as we strengthen the ties with our allies and strive for peace in the Middle East.”
The ties Netanyahu has quietly built with moderate Sunni powers in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, may play out as pertinent to Trump’s wish to strengthen ties with “our allies” (plural) and “strive for peace in the Middle East.”
He clearly does not share the view that the Friedman appointment is an obstacle to either goal, even if he does operate from a US embassy relocated to Jerusalem.
The media presentation of the designated US ambassador as the guiding force of Trump’s policy on Israel and the Palestinians, who takes dictation from Bet El in Judea – which Friedman succored for many years – may be just as wide of the mark as presenting the designated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as Putin’s pawn in Washington.
That Israel will finally have a friend at the US embassy for the first time in 16 years, instead of adversarial figures, some of whom represented the far-left circles in the United States, can only strengthen the ties which soured seriously under the Obama administration.
However, that the Jewish Home party leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, was the first Israeli politician to be received after the election in Trump Tower does not mean that the president elect has automatically bought that party line.
More significantly, Israel’s top security chiefs were sent to New York last week by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to brief US President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team on where the Israeli government stands on current Middle East affairs, including Iran’s nuclear program, the crisis in Syria, terror threats and the Palestinian issue.
It was led by the Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and National Security Council adviser Yaakov Nagel. Israel’s ambassador Ron Dermer joined the meeting.
Their main purpose was to lay the foundations for liaising on security and intelligence matters relating to the Middle East with the newcomers in their field.
For the most part, they answered questions, which were undoubtedly friendly. But policies are not governed by sentiments, however well-intentioned. The group of Israeli security chiefs came away from Trump Tower hardly wiser than when they went in. The impression they gained was that decisions were still in the making and had not yet gelled into policies.
According to debkafile’s sources in New York and Washington, Trump is genuinely keen on pursuing peace between Arab nations and Israel as a framework for resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute – though not as his immediate priority. If in consequence, Egypt and Jordan establish embassies in Jerusalem, moving the US embassy to the Israeli capital would not present a difficulty.
As for the Palestinians, after refusing to play ball with Barack Obama and John Kerry’s efforts to bring them to the negotiating table and rejecting every Arab plan put before them, they can’t expect a better deal than they were offered hitherto.
Netanyahu still holds to the two-state solution – against the opposition of members of his government and party. Ambassador designate Friedman has written extensively against this plan. But, as Donald Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus stressed in a Fox interview Sunday on this very question, policy is made in the Oval Office and diplomats have the job of execution.
But meanwhile, more thinking appears to be going forward. Some of the thinking today turns on the resurrection of the old Jordanian-Palestinian confederation plan that would grant Palestinian independence or autonomy, or maybe an updated version of the Alon plan for secure Israeli borders, which left major Palestinian towns under self-rule (as they are at present) while drawing Israel’s eastern border along the Jordanian River Valley.
There is also talk of Trump naming his son-in-law Jared Kushner as his special Middle East peace envoy. That too is not clear.
The only element of future Trump Middle East policy that appears to be solidifying, according to our sources, is his determination to drastically clip Iran’s wings in the region and stand the Obama policy in this respect on its head. While never admitting as much, Obama preferred Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Shiite Muslim camp to the Sunni side. His successor will likely turn the wheel round in the opposite direction and restore the Sunnis their former pre-eminence in the region.
Trump’s strategic advisers believe that if Moscow can be persuaded to go along with this policy, the Palestinians will find they have no option but to drop their perennial rejectionism and come round to what could be their last chance for an accommodation.