Donald Trump’s Best New Policy in the Middle East Would be No New Policy
President Trump’s stance on conflict in the Middle East is a mixture of bellicose threats and demonisation of opponents combined with rather more cautious and carefully calculated action or inaction on the ground. Leaders in Baghdad, Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran face the same problem as those in Tokyo and London, uncertain where the rhetoric ends and the reality begins and unsure if Trump himself distinguishes much between the two.
The debate about Trump in the Middle East does differ from that in the rest of the world in one important respect: the need for an answer here is more urgent because of the greater likelihood of a crisis, which Trump might provoke or exacerbate.
When he was first elected, the urgency seemed very great but there has been no major new crisis that put him to the test. For all his denunciations of President Obama for his supposedly feeble defence of American interests, US strategy in Iraq and Syria has remained very much the same. The priority has continued to be the destruction of the caliphate and the elimination of Isis.
The continuity is because the strategy has been successful and surviving Isis fighters are being hunted down or are taking refuge in hideouts in the deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria. But victory over Isis brings with it the prospect of a new US set of priorities in the Middle East with a more confrontational approach to Iran topping the list.
In his jeremiad against Iran on 13 October, Trump justified his refusal to certify the Iran nuclear deal with gobbets of propaganda, one-sided history and straight lies. He proposed a new US policy towards Iran based “on a clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world”. The speech sounded like the opening volley in a new campaign against Iran, to be fought out on multiple fronts.
Some sort of collision between the US and Iran looks possible or even likely, a battle which will probably be carried out by proxies and will not be fought to a finish. This is because Trump’s approach to the outside world is a blend of American nationalism and isolationism. The former produces belligerent threats and the latter a wish to avoid getting entangled in any new Middle East war.
This could be bad news for the US because, if it cannot use its massive military superiority, it will become bogged down in the sort of part military, part political struggle in which the Iranians are past masters. “They have a PhD in this sort of warfare,” said an Iraqi friend with long experience of dealing with them.
It may not come to that: such is the intensity of political strife in the US that new foreign policy ventures do not look very feasible. But any sensible leader in the Middle East always looks at the worst case scenario first. The wars in Syria and Iraq are either coming to an end or their present phase is ending, but in both cases the situation is fragile. People in Baghdad are wary of good news after forty years of wars and emergencies and would not be too surprised if things turned sour again.
It would be a pity if this happened, because just for once the professional pessimists in Iraq are not having it all their own way. The central government is far stronger than it was three years ago when Isis was rampaging across the country. Its army, with great help from American airpower, defeated Isis in the nine-month siege of Mosul. The Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faced down the Kurdish leadership and won an almost bloodless success regaining Kirkuk.
It is doubtful if either the US or Iran would come out the winner in any new confrontation, but Iraqis would certainly come out the losers.
The best policy for the US in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere is to do nothing very new. But this may be difficult for Trump. It is not just him who has wrong-headed ideas about the Middle East. There has recently been a stronger than usual surge of apocalyptic commentary about how Iran is winning victory after victory over the US in the region.
Washington think-tankers, retired generals and journalists warn of Iran opening up “a land corridor” to the Mediterranean, as if the Iranians travel only by chariot and could spread their influence by no other means.
It could be that Trump’s menaces really are serious, in which case the Iranians are understandably going to react. But even if they are largely rhetorical, they might trigger an Iranian over-reaction.
“The Iranians are under the impression that others want to topple their regime,” an Iraqi politician told me. “The Iranians are very smart. They do not send their armies abroad. Once you do that you are lost. They fight by proxy on many fronts outside their borders, but this destabilises everybody else.” Once again Iraq would find itself in the front line.
Curiously, Iran owes much of its expanded influence not to its own machinations but to the US itself. It has been the collateral beneficiary of US-led regime change in two of its neighbours, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, both which had been viscerally anti-Iranian.
The sheer ignorance of Trump and his administration about the Middle East is dangerous. It is usual, particularly in liberal circles, to see people in the Middle East as passive victims of foreign intervention. This is largely true, but it masks the fact that at any one time there are several governments and opposition movements trying to lure the US into a war with its enemies by demonising them as a threat to the world.
The Iraqi opposition spent a long time in the 1990s trying to manipulate the US into going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and, thanks to 9/11, got its wish in 2003. The Syrian opposition backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey were hoping to do the same thing in Syria in 2011-13 and were much frustrated that Obama did not play along.
Trump may speak of confronting Iran, but there is no sign that he has a coherent plan to do so. Much of what is happening in the region is beyond his control and US influence is going down, but for reasons that have nothing to do with him. The US has never quite recovered from its failure to achieve its ends in Iraq after the invasion. The return of Russia to the region as a great power has also limited US influence. The US public does not want another war in the Middle East.
Obama accepted these limitations and Trump will probably have to do the same. But his sheer unpredictability already makes the region feel a more dangerous place, even when he is doing nothing.
An Israeli dream might come truth if Trump declares Jerusalem the capital -- but so will an Arab nightmare
Could Trump expect another warm welcome and traditional sward dance in Riyadh? Would the Saudis choose to buy all those billions of weapons from the US if it hands Jerusalem to the Israelis?
Amid three catastrophic Middle East wars, it would be difficult to imagine anything more provocative, dangerous – or just plain insane – than for the Americans to move their embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Yet that is just what Donald Trump is this week thinking of doing. In a way, we should have expected this: mad presidents do mad things.
But is there no one in the White House able to restrain him? Not even Jared Kushner, who is supposed to be Trump’s Middle East hand? Or is Kushner too bound up in his latest scandal – just revealed by Newsweek, that he failed to disclose his co-directorship of a foundation funding illegal Jewish colonies in the West Bank when he filed financial records with the Office of Government Ethics this year – to speak out?
For it’s not that the embassy itself is just a symbolic move. It means that the United States would acknowledge that the city of Jerusalem, sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, is the capital of the Israeli state, and that the Palestinians can never share it. The slovenly “peace process” – abandoned by the Israelis, then by the Palestinians and then by the Americans years ago, although “statesmen” still talk about it in the dream world in which they live – would no longer exist even in our imaginations.
That’s why everyone from Macron to Erdogan, from the Saudis to the EU, and of course the poor old Palestinians, have been variously criticising and condemning Trump’s potential decision. If he doesn’t sign the old waiver – which has to be renewed every six months – to the US law to move the embassy, then he will indeed, to quote the Palestinian leadership, be risking an “ethnic” conflict.
Aren’t there enough wars in the Middle East to keep even the crazed White House busy? Trump has long ago taken the Sunni side in the Sunni-Shia conflict – but now he risks turning up the heat by infuriating both of them. The Arabs all know – and many Israelis agree – that President Trump is bananas. But the ramifications of any movement of the embassy – or acceptance by Trump that Jerusalem is indeed the capital of Israel – will be enormous. It will tell the Arabs, both Muslims and Christians, that their second most holy city belongs to the Jews of Israel and not to them. It will tell the Iranians the same. It will mean the same to all the Muslim countries of the world.
Could Trump expect another warm welcome and traditional sword dance in Riyadh? Would the Saudis choose to buy all those billions of weapons from the US if it hands Jerusalem to the Israelis? Muslims generally believe that the Prophet, born in Arabia, ascended from Jerusalem to heaven.
In the West, it will further tear apart the relationship between Washington and the EU, it will damage Canadian-American relations – for Ottawa is surely not going to follow Washington’s move – and the EU, still fondly believing in the famous “peace process”, is certainly not going to respond by moving its own embassies to Jerusalem. There are, of course, European consulates in Jerusalem – but to cover the East Jerusalem and the West Bank, not Israel.
Bibi Netanyahu and his extraordinarily right-wing Israeli government will certainly be happy, for it will unleash a new and far greater expansion of Jewish colonies – which we still oddly call “settlements” – on Arab land, further aggravating the Palestinians. The Israelis have been stealing land from their legal Arab owners for years, but President Trump would be taking from them even the hope of a capital in East Jerusalem.
And how would the Palestinians of the refugee camps in Lebanon respond? There is scarcely a Palestinian home without a photograph of the Al-Aqsa mosque on the wall. How will Hezbollah respond? Can they merely satisfy themselves with rhetoric – or will they need to fire some missiles over the Israeli-Lebanese border to express their fury?
And the Russians, the greatest ally of Syria – where Bashar al-Assad would surely declare his regime the standard bearer in a new battle for a “liberated Jerusalem” – can scarcely let such a moment pass without taking the Arab side. And selling them the warships, fighter aircraft and missiles which they have hitherto bought from the Americans.
An Israeli dream might come true if Trump announces Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But so will an Arab nightmare. At least when Jerusalem remained the subject of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Arabs of the West Bank could believe in the vague hope of a share of the city. But if Trump goes ahead, then America can never field another “peace process”, even an imaginary one. “A colossal blunder” will be the least the world will say about the United States if Trump does not sign the waiver.
Israel, a state of mind
by Marwan Bishara
Deceit and conceit were on full display at the Chatham House earlier this month, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped in for a chat. He was visiting London to celebrate 100 years of the Balfour Declaration, in which colonial Britain promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine at a time when Jews made up less than 10 percent of its inhabitants.
Before bombarding his audience with a barrage of the usual political spin and tired cliches about peace and security, Netanyahu's British host readily provided the launching pad: Israel exists in a "very dangerous" region, a "conflict-prone" region of the world.
I listened carefully for any hint of irony as a Brit and an Israeli complained about the Middle East mess, but could only see a childish grin of satisfaction on Binji's face. It's as if, from Balfour to Blair and from Ben Gurion to Barak, countless British and Israeli leaders have tried in earnest to help these ungrateful Arabs, but to no avail.
And so today, despite the sincerity of their colonial efforts to bring reason and stability to these troubled lands, the poor Israeli and Chatham House lads are lamenting the mess. Preoccupied with so many conflicts in the Middle East, there's no time for anything else to do or discuss.
Especially not when it comes to peace.
Netanyahu's theatrics vary depending on the audience. These days, his roles include strategic analyst, marketing executive, chief moralist, Sunni leader and modern Israelite prophet. He's anything but a peace-seeker, let alone peacemaker.
So, Netanyahu, the strategist, warns of Tehran's non-existing nuclear weapons programme and rails against the Iran nuclear deal using charts and maps, but says nothing of Israel's own decades-old nuclear arsenal and its contribution to nuclear proliferation.
Perhaps that's because he wasn't asked. Ever?
Today, Chief Moralist Netanyahu looks at dictators and he sees 'moderate Sunni' leaders.
Before the Arab spring, Netanyahu argued that democracy was indispensable for peace since dictators couldn't be trusted to maintain it. He preached democracy, when democracy was a useful pretext to justify the invasion of Iraq. But today, Netanyahu, the marketing executive, is re-branding democracy as a dangerous gamble.
Back when Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy was in fashion, Netanyahu stressed that the more democratic Arab states became, the less dangerous they would be for Israel. But I could only shake my head listening to Netanyahu at Chatham House cite Israeli-American sociologist Amitai Etzioni's book, Security First, to show why democracy is bad for stability and peace. What a farce!
So today, Chief Moralist Netanyahu looks at dictators and he sees "moderate Sunni" leaders. With a nudge from his pal, US President Donald Trump, he volunteers to champion the Saudi "Sunnicrescent" against Iran's "Shia Crescent" in return for the Sunni world looking the other way as Israel devours Palestine.
All in all, Netanyahu is optimistic. The Middle East has turned against itself, and its leaders are slowly but surely turning to Israel unconditionally, despite their self-interested coyness on the matter. And the world, especially the United States, has never been as receptive to Israeli demands.
But what about peace with the Palestinians? Well, Israel, is in no hurry.
The idea that a fully secure Israel would be conciliatory and "generous" with the Palestinians, which guided the peace process from the start, has proven false once again, but Arabs and others continue to make gestures towards Israel in the hope of a compromise.
Half a state on half of the West Bank
After Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, a TIME cover story explained that, "Israel doesn't care about peace" because "Israelis feel prosperous, secure and disengaged from the peace process with the Palestinians."
The same goes for their leaders. The ruling coalition is actually opposed to the "peace process" and is sure to implode at the mere consideration of a withdrawal from any part of the occupied West Bank, let alone from Jerusalem. So would the Likud Party. Netanyahu has no interest whatsoever in changing the status quo.
He rather insists on Israel's historical right to a fully-fledged, sovereign and secure "Jewish state", rooted in both biblical mythology and modern realpolitik. This means, among other things, extending Israel's authority to all of Palestine.
While peacemakers ponder possibilities outside Netanyahu's box, his government continues to box in the Palestinians.
But when it comes to the Palestinians, Netanyahu, the spinner, questions their demand for sovereignty, security and statehood, and suggests that peacemakers must think out of the box.
In other words, if they must stay, the Palestinians will have to do so as guests in the Jewish homeland or in "Greater Israel". And if they behave, they may get half a state.
While peacemakers ponder possibilities outside Netanyahu's box, his government continues to box in the Palestinians.
It expands illegal settlements in occupied Palestine, tightens its security grip on the West Bank, and issues new humiliating preconditions for any progress in the peace process: Palestinian recognition of Israel's historical right to exist as a "Jewish state" and abandonment of the "right of return".
All of this diminishes the once-envisioned sovereign, independent and contiguous Palestinian state into a fragile, half-state on parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, undercutting a fair resolution of the refugee question.
It clearly doesn't matter to Israel that the Palestinian leaders have committed to a two-state solution or that more than two-thirds of the UN member states have recognised Palestinian independence. As long as Israel can help it, Palestine will remain a distant dream. As former Secretary of State John Kerry concluded after his exhaustive experience with the Netanyahu government, Israel doesn't want peace with the Palestinians.
It's more interested in US bombing Iran than in advancing peace in Palestine.
Then came President Trump promising to confront Iran and propose an "ultimate deal" to resolve the conflict once and for all.
When asked about the substance of his proposal, the US president was terribly blase and uncommitted: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like". Trump left it to his religious Zionist son-in-law to articulate the "ultimate deal", but he won't propose anything serious before checking with Israel first.
Pressured to choose between a two-state solution and an emerging one-state reality, Netanyahu has come up with his own formula: a state and a half. And now he's got the US to sponsor it and the Saudis to pay for it. No wonder he can't stop smiling.
What the proposed deal may lack in fairness, the Saudis are expected to make up in funding. With Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's authority facing bankruptcy and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in shambles, the Palestinian leadership may bite - not because it wants to, but because the "ultimate deal" is, in fact, an ultimatum: get with the programme or get lost.
This may work for a short while, but it won't bring peace or security in the long term. And it will undermine, perhaps for good, the idea of a two-state solution, while at the same time prevent a de facto one-state reality from emerging.
But regional and international support won't change the stubborn fact; it will merely formalise apartheid, Israeli-style.
This is a deadlock. It's injustice. And it will only fester, Netanyahu's false prophecy notwithstanding.
The real solution lies not in the number of states required to resolve the conflict, but in the state of mind that maintains it.