May 23, 2017 - The Trump Middle East visit

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses which leg of Trump’s Middle East tour was strategically more significant, Riyadh or Jerusalem/Bethlehem; how Trump can square his presumed achievements in Riyadh with his sweeping campaign declarations against Muslims; whether it is really such a success story; Trump's trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem; particularly comic and sensational moments; the presentation of Trump's strategy for making peace between Israelis and Palestinians; whether any of these strategies really offer the kind of hope for the future that Netanyahu mentioned so optimistically; and the significance of Trump's closing speech at the Israel Museum where he vowed to fight Iran and terrorism, protect Israel, and pursue peace.

 

Q. Which leg of Trump’s Middle East tour was strategically more significant, Riyadh or Jerusalem/Bethlehem?

A. Without question, Riyadh. There, President Trump had a clearly defined set of objectives: making amends with the Muslim world, making money for US industry, and galvanizing a Sunni Arab coalition against Iran.

 

Q. Not Trump’s dramatic closing address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem?

A. No. That address is best analyzed at the end of this Q & A. It offers an appropriate concluding note.

 

Q. How can Trump square his presumed achievements in Riyadh with his sweeping campaign declarations against Muslims?

A. For one, we have already seen in the first 100-plus days how easy it is for this president to reverse himself. Then too, in this case he can argue that he conceded one campaign pledge in order to realize two others. Yes, the Muslims who used to be his enemies are now his friends. But he is making the Saudis and other wealthy Arabs “pay” for their security and even bringing jobs and infrastructure to America through huge Saudi arms deals and investments.

 

Q. Is this really such a success story?

A. No. The Saudis have demonstrated in Yemen and the Levant that they are not very skilled at deploying all those US (and UK) weapons to achieve common goals. The new arms supplies will further fuel a Saudi-Iranian arms race launched earlier by the Obama administration’s effort to compensate Riyadh for the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. And they will further encourage destructive Saudi military activity in Yemen, which has already become a humanitarian disaster zone. Note too that some of the “new” Trump-era contracts were inked during the Obama era while others are little more than letters of intent.

Apropos humanitarian, Trump never once mentioned “freedom”, “democracy” or “human rights” in Riyadh. “We are not here to lecture--we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship”. In some ways this can be considered a refreshingly candid departure in view of the abject failure of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations to democratize and reform the Arab Middle East.

In other ways, this reflects the overall mindset of an American president whose role model appears to be the authoritarian Vladimir Putin and who is perfectly content to make the profligate Saudi royal family the centerpiece of his new Middle East policy. Is Trump aware how extensive Saudi and other Gulf funding of ISIS and al-Qaeda has been? Does he know that the school curriculum in ISIS-occupied parts of Iraq and Syria is the Saudi curriculum? Did he receive any truly viable Saudi commitments to fight Iran and ISIS? Did he notice there were almost no women in the hall when he spoke? Is he really betting on this wealthy but incredibly backward and fanatically Islamist kingdom?

On the other hand, at least Trump in Riyadh did not repudiate the JCPOA, make Saudi Arabia a non-NATO ally or criticize an American law that allows victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi government. These are all issues where the Saudis had cultivated high hopes for change.

Everyone in the Middle East remembers the Obama 2009 visit to Cairo, where he insisted on addressing Egyptian students in a speech heavy on democratic values while he never even acknowledged his host, President Mubarak. Obama did not stop off in Israel on that trip, which was followed 18 months later by the abject collapse of Egypt and five additional Arab states. In contrast, Trump on his first trip abroad as president has embraced Israel passionately. And in Riyadh he addressed only Muslim leaders, not the common folk. The dissonance could not be stronger.

 

Q. And in Jerusalem and Bethlehem?

A. Here the public mission appears to have been little more than laying heavy foundations of goodwill, trust and confidence-building in anticipation of a possible but undefined peace process that at some point in the future could include a broader Arab dimension. On several occasions, Trump remarked that Arab leaders had told him in Riyadh that they would warm up relations with Israel if and when there is progress toward a Palestinian solution.

But not a “two-state solution”: that phrase was never mentioned publicly in Israel or Palestine. Nor would the US embassy move soon to Jerusalem.

At Yad VaShem, Trump appeared to make a special effort to erase any lingering doubts regarding his understanding of the Holocaust and its ramifications, a gesture that Israelis clearly found gratifying. No doubt in private Trump and PM Netanyahu also discussed security dimensions of the Iran threat and the situation in Syria--particularly the increasingly urgent status of southern Syria near the Israeli and Jordanian borders where things appear to be heating up. These are important issues. It is interesting that he never mentioned Syria in public in Israel. Because of Russia?

The entire Israel visit, by the way, took place in a cocoon. Out of sight, dozens of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners, now in their sixth week of not eating, were being hospitalized to keep them alive. Violence was erupting in several areas of the West Bank. Then again, the Riyadh visit also took place in a cocoon; shortly after the Trumps departed, the Yemeni Houthis fired a missile at Riyadh that was intercepted by the Saudis.

 

Q. Did any particular comic or sensational moments catch your attention?

A. There were some pathetic and uncomfortable moments that may or may not be of longer-term historical importance.

President Trump went out of his way to tell the Israeli public “I never mentioned Israel by name”. He was referring to the famous leak to the Russians regarding intelligence from Syria regarding ISIS terrorist plans. That was pathetic. No one had mentioned the leak publicly in Israel. Rather, Trump was signaling that he is clearly preoccupied with his worsening situation back home where multiple inquiries about his Russian connections are brewing.

Sara Netanyahu’s lack of sophistication stuck out. (Forgive me, I don’t often gossip but some things can’t be resisted.) When the Trumps arrived in Israel she was heard telling them that “the press doesn’t like you or us but the people do”. Upon welcoming the Trumps to the prime minister’s residence she apologized that the house was old and proclaimed that only thanks to their visit was she able to get funds to paint the walls. Down to earth and charming, or incredibly provincial?

In general, Sara and Bibi seemed to go out of their way to suck up to the Trumps in ways that embarrassed me as an Israeli. (Yes, but what do Saudis think of the spectacular way Trump was feted there?) They were only outdone by Oren Hazan, a crass Likud member of Knesset who crashed the airport reception and to Netanyahu’s consternation forced a vulgar selfie upon the obliging president.

Finally, the Trumps arrived in Israel on “Jerusalem Day”, this year celebrating fifty years of “United Jerusalem Eternal Capital of Israel”. I find this celebration, too, pathetic. Jerusalem is not united. Forty percent of its residents are disenfranchised Arabs. Another large percentage are Haredi Jews who don’t even recognize Israeli sovereignty. There is really little to celebrate. Jerusalem Day is the ultimate exercise in Israeli hypocrisy.

 

Q. Still, surely Trump presented his strategy for making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

A. By my count, he referred to no fewer than three strategies, albeit without ever publicly calling them strategies or mouthing the words “two-state solution”.

One strategy is embodied in his itinerary: he is visiting the Saudis who are guardians of the holy places of Islam; he put a note into a crack in the Western Wall, the holiest site of Judaism; and from Israel he proceeded to the Vatican. By embracing the three monotheistic religions and repeatedly invoking God in his Jerusalem Museum speech, Trump is sending a message that faith can produce peace in the Holy Land.

Another strategy emerges from Trump’s request to Netanyahu to make economic gestures to the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the gestures even before Trump arrived: joint economic zones, permits for Palestinians to build in Area C of the West Bank, and easier entry to Israel for Palestinian day laborers and entry to the West Bank from Jordan at the Allenby Bridge.

A third strategy, “top-down”, was alluded to by Trump in his remarks regarding the Arab promise of increased normalization with Israel once progress is registered with the Palestinians. In the Israeli version, the Arabs begin with normalization, then pressure the Palestinians to make concessions. Apparently, in Riyadh Trump heard a much more modest commitment.

Trump also called on Palestinians to curb incitement and cease financial support for terrorists and their families. And he bought into a long-held belief in many Arab and other circles when he allowed that Israeli-Palestinian peace was key to winning the war against ISIS and solving additional problems in the Middle East.

 

Q. Do any of these strategies really offer the kind of hope for the future that Netanyahu mentioned so optimistically?

A. No. First, religion is not a vehicle for solving the conflict. Indeed, the conflict is becoming ever more religious as Arabs rely increasingly on Islam and Israeli politics are dominated by messianic religious politicians. This makes the conflict harder, not easier, to resolve. One road to progress is to get God out of this conflict.

Second, “economic peace” has failed repeatedly. Palestinians should of course be more prosperous, but this does not make them more inclined to offer peace process concessions. Indeed, experience teaches us that intifadas break out at times of relative prosperity.

What’s more, Israel’s gestures are hollow. In area C, already existing “illegal” Palestinian dwellings are simply being legalized. Simultaneously, by way of balance and compensation to settlers, a mechanism was just created to legalize “illegal” settlement outposts.

Third, the Sunni Arab world has taken steps toward closer relations with Israel even without progress on the Palestinian issue. The Iran and ISIS threats have proven far more compelling in bridging Arab-Israel gaps than non-existent movement toward two states. The upshot is that Netanyahu is comfortable expanding settlements because he is not under pressure from his Arab neighbors. But there will be no genuine and overt normalization with the Arab world without a full-fledged two-state solution, and Netanyahu knows it.

 

Q. Now to the closing speech at the Israel Museum. Trump vowed to fight Iran and terrorism, protect Israel, and pursue peace. He emerged a committed Zionist. What else could we ask for?

A. I watched the speech with its superlatives and its almost messianic promise. “Not with Donald J. Trump”, the president warned all those who would attack Israel and murder Jews. He piled on the praise for Israel’s contributions to humanity. He is “personally committed” to helping the Palestinians and Netanyahu, both of whom are “ready for peace”, make the deal. He will pursue a “regional coalition” for peace. He even took credit for Obama’s generous security support for Israel.

Then I listened to Israeli pundits and politicians from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. They were blown away. “This is our opportunity” they said, albeit with radically different views of what that opportunity might be. They seemed to believe every word Trump said. I can understand the Israeli politicians’ sense that they have to gush over Trump’s speeches in view of his obvious egotistical need to be constantly complimented and pampered. But journalists and think tank heads? That’s embarrassing too.

I did not believe him. Nor did I hear a single word about the content of Israeli-Palestinian peace or even what his peace vision is. Two states? A united states of the Middle East? I have a vision, he said, and I’ll endorse any interpretation of it you Israelis and Palestinians choose. Thanks.

I hope I’m wrong. But I believe I just heard the same old charlatan who promised that the Mexicans would build a wall and pay for it.

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