November 14, 2016 - Trump and the Middle East


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 if it's possible that the Middle East contributed to Trump’s election victory; contradictions in Trump’s Middle East policy positions; whether Trump’s demand that countries like Japan and South Korea and NATO members pay their own way in defense matters could also affect Israel; are Trump’s first public policy statements since being elected that he welcomes the challenge of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict empty bluster or a serious commitment; whether Trump’s Republican, evangelical and militia-minded constituency committed to Israel’s security from a religious-ideological standpoint; if Middle East leaders, following the lead of Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi, were correct in their assumptions that Trump’s electoral victory will reduce US pressures on their regimes regarding human rights issues; and how much of this is pure speculation .

Q. Everything we can say at this point about a Trump administration and the Middle East is tentative and speculative. So where do we start?

A. Let’s begin by asking where, if at all, the Middle East contributed to Trump’s election victory. Granted, this US election was decided primarily on the basis of personalities, wildly unconventional and at times conspiratorial tactics, and domestic issues. But even some of the latter have a Middle East dimension.

For example, there can be no doubt that Trump’s xenophobic campaign not only focused on immigrants from Mexico, but also drew sustenance from popular fear concerning waves of Muslim migrants from the Greater Middle East. And it was nourished by Islamist-inspired terrorism, particularly in places like the Boston Marathon in 2014, Orlando and San Bernardino earlier in 2016 and even violent attacks by Muslim immigrants in Manhattan and Minnesota as late as this September.

Then too, Trump appears to have benefited by portraying the Iran nuclear deal and US-led campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria as dangerous failures. He contrasted these with seemingly successful exercises in power projection by Russia’s President Putin and suggested the US should both emulate Putin and join forces with him. Trump even portrayed Syria’s President Bashar Assad as “much tougher and much smarter” than Hillary Clinton and rejected the notion that Assad should be removed as a tenet of American Middle East policy.

Interestingly, regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict and the two-state solution Trump proved less adept at scoring points with the electorate because he so obviously contradicted himself, e.g., he’ll be evenhanded but he’ll move the US embassy to Jerusalem; he’ll be “neutral” but he won’t exert pressure on Israel and will condone more settlements.


Q. Aren’t there additional contradictions in Trump’s Middle East policy positions?

A. The most glaring one concerns Russia, Iran and Syria. Trump wants to work with Russia against ISIS and in support of Assad. But he also wants to weaken or renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Yet Iran is an ally of Assad and is working with Russia to support him militarily. And Russia is a signatory to the Iran nuclear deal. Thus, the moment Trump takes even a relatively minor step against Iran, like refusing to renew executive orders for sanctions wavers, his entire “strategy” for the Levant could be in trouble.


Q. Couldn’t Trump’s demand that countries like Japan and South Korea and NATO members pay their own way in defense matters also affect Israel?

A. Absolutely. This is my personal near-term worst case scenario regarding President Trump.

Even if he is not really serious about the idea, all it might take is one more careless declaration to the effect that the allies must defend themselves by themselves for, say, Japan or South Korea to move to go nuclear. In Japan’s case, it’s basically a matter of turning a screwdriver to transform itself into a nuclear power. We could then witness nuclear escalation in the Far East which could be catching elsewhere.

Moving a little closer to home, suppose Russia’s Putin interprets Trump’s admonition to NATO countries to prepare to defend themselves as a green light to send a band of Russian-speaking “Estonian patriots” into defenseless Estonia? The resultant tensions will be felt all along the NATO-Russia border, as far east as Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey and possibly in the Levant as well. Moreover, Trump’s victory is likely to empower additional far-right politicians in Europe such as France’s Marine Le Pen. They campaign on platforms of dismantling the European Union, Israel’s biggest trading partner. Some of these leaders barely conceal their anti-Semitism and could be inspired by Trump’s appointment of people like Steve Bannon to articulate their views more openly. This is regional destabilization in Israel’s front yard.

Still closer to home, imagine Trump seeking to reopen the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, in a manner that enrages Iran and seemingly invites it to renew its drive for nuclear weapons. How will Saudi Arabia, which allegedly can “buy a bomb” from Pakistan, react? How will Israel, which has never openly acknowledged a military nuclear potential, react? We could quickly witness nuclear escalation and destabilization in the Middle East as well--Israel’s back yard.

Extending this set of scenarios, if Trump is serious about America’s allies paying their own way, suppose he goes one step further and announces a rapid scaling down of the financial aspect of US defense support for Israel. He’ll say something like, “I love Israel, but what works for NATO and Japan has to be applied to Israel as well. They’re rich; they have a nuclear potential. They have to carry their own weight.” What steps might the government of Israel feel obliged to take to bolster its deterrent image lest Trump’s move be misunderstood by, say, Iran and ISIS as weakening Israel? How would this affect security in the region?


Q. One of Trump’s first public policy statements since being elected is that he welcomes the challenge of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Empty bluster or a serious commitment?

A. I’m skeptical. See above, Trump’s campaign contradictions on the issue. If he thinks this will be merely a matter of closing the “ultimate deal” between two particularly ornery customers, thereby ending “the war that never ends”, he has a lot to learn.

Certainly the dominant messianic right-wingers in PM Netanyahu’s government seem to believe that Trump’s election is good news for the settlements and bad news for the two-state solution they reject. On Sunday they backed a new legislative initiative that would enable the government to bypass High Court orders that it dismantle an “illegal” West Bank outpost, Amona, built on private Palestinian land near Ramallah. They seem to believe a Trump administration will condone Israel negating its own land laws in the Palestinian territories--a major step toward totally colonial rule there. Meanwhile, among his own Likud ministers, only Netanyahu appears to fear an Obama administration reaction in the form of a UN Security Council resolution on the two-state solution in the coming two months.


Q. But isn’t Trump’s Republican, evangelical and militia-minded constituency committed to Israel’s security from a religious-ideological standpoint?

A. Yes, at the declarative level. But as we have seen, some potential policy directions appear to contradict this commitment.

Here it helps to compare Trump to Obama. The Obama administration has for eight years been seriously committed to Israel’s security. Yet at the same time, Obama appeared determined to disengage from the Middle East to the extent of avoiding any heavy new US military commitment. That carefully calibrated degree of disengagement, coupled with Obama’s commitment to an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, already prompted Netanyahu in recent years to seek closer Israeli ties with major powers like Russia, China and India. And in turn, those countries’ concerns regarding Islamic extremism prompted them to pay little more than lip-service to the Palestinian issue.

Meanwhile, Obama remained heavily engaged in Europe and the Far East and lightly and selectively engaged in the Middle East. Now, in contrast, if Trump proves really serious about disengaging militarily in Europe and the Middle East, and if he effectively appoints Russia his proxy in the Levant, Netanyahu’s paranoid need for doubtful new friends could grow, to the overall detriment of Israel’s security.


Q. Some Middle East leaders, following the lead of Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi, openly celebrated Trump’s electoral victory on the assumption that this will reduce US pressures on their regimes regarding human rights issues.

A. Indeed, one of the safer assumptions regarding Trump’s impending presidency is that it reinforces a broader global trend toward autocratic governments and regimes, away from globalization and away from liberalism. Here Netanyahu should feel he is in good company in the Middle East, along with Turkey’s Erdogan and Egypt’s Sisi, not to mention Putin next door in Syria. But Netanyahu would be well advised to bear in mind that autocratic rule, particularly in Europe, tends to go hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism quickly becomes anti-Zionism.


Q. Isn’t all this just speculation?

A. At the end of the day, yes, albeit informed speculation. From Israel’s standpoint, indeed in the eyes of the entire international community, Trump’s world is a radically new world. Watch Trump’s early appointments for clues where he might be heading. Right now he looks particularly dangerous for the Middle East.

And don’t forget, Obama is around for two more months. As we suggested last week, it is precisely Trump’s victory coupled with eight years of aggravation from Netanyahu that might now bring Obama to the UN Security Council with a major new initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. That would saddle Trump with an important Middle East legacy.