US President Donald Trump is breaking with past norms by choosing the Middle East as his first destination for international visits — a development that likely holds important significance for Israel.
Trump will arrive in Saudi Arabia and then Israel during his visit this month.
Choosing Saudi Arabia as the first stop stands in stark contrast to the nature of former President Obama’s first visit to the region. Obama came to Cairo, Egypt, to deliver a speech in 2009 that sought to reset relations with the Muslim world. This was soon followed by the “Arab spring,” which led to the collapse of multiple Middle Eastern states, violence, terrorism, and instability. Obama skipped Jerusalem entirely during that tour, sparking a period of high tension with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government.
Trump’s itinerary could not be more different. After visiting Riyadh, he will fly directly to Israel, thereby demonstrating the importance he places on American – Israeli relations, and his focus on strengthening the warm relations between his administration and the Israeli government.
The visit to Israel will include important ceremonial components intended to project to the Israeli people that the US remains deeply committed to the security and prosperity of the Jewish state.
At the same time, it is already clear that Trump is seriously interested in kickstarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He has indicated recently that he sees the Israeli – Palestinian conflict as the most difficult to resolve, yet also, as a challenge, one to which he might personally seek to rise, by finding the right formula for the ‘big deal,’ to borrow a term from the business world.
Whether Trump believes this is attainable, or whether he thinks this should at least be tried, what is clear is that Trump is committed to the effort, to an extent far beyond what many in the right wing camp and the settler movement in Israel believed initially.
These political forces in Israel appear to be in for a surprise by Trump’s genuine determination to try and achieve an Israeli – Palestinian peace agreement.
Trump has already hosted the Israeli prime minister, and asked him to constrain West Bank settlement construction. He also met with PA president Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, and held prolonged talks with him. During his visit to Israel, Trump will hold a second meeting, apparently in Bethlehem, with Abbas.
Looking ahead, the key question will be: Is Trump able to jumpstart a diplomatic process in the context of a regional initiative, that is, with the backing of Sunni powers; or will Trump’s push for peace resemble past efforts, meaning a two-sided Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, with the US acting as the facilitator?
It seems reasonable to believe that during his trip to Saudi Arabia, and meetings with Saudi leaders and other pragmatic Arab leaders, Trump will discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and an effort will be made to recruit support from pro-American Arab countries for a big, regional maneuver, based on getting Israeli – Palestinian talks restarted.
Trump will arrive in the Middle East with a very large delegation of some 1,000 people, including Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and the assigned Mideast peace broker Jared Kushner.
Trump’s Middle East negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, is already traveling around the area. Unusually, there have been no leaks from any side regarding these efforts.
All of these signs point to the possibility that “something is cooking,” and that some kind of diplomatic maneuver is taking shape, which could be declared publicly during Trump’s visit.
Usually, American presidents visit their neighbors — Canada and Mexico — first, but the tensions that exist between Washington and its neighbors, over proposed changes to NAFTA, and the anti-immigration wall, may have led Trump to change course.
Trump’s choice to come to this region first, as well as his recent actions and statements, indicate that his campaign messages that suggested an embrace of American isolationism are no longer relevant. This is important news for both Jerusalem and the pragmatic Sunni regional players who share common interests with Israel. All of these countries look to Washington in the hope of receiving US support and leadership in the struggle against the dark forces gaining power in the region.
Today, it is possible to say with certainty that reality has knocked on Trump’s door, and that the president, despite his original intentions, is dedicating time to international issues, whether they take the form of the North Korea situation, or activating military force in response to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack in Syria.
In addition, Trump has stepped back from comments that expressed hostility to NATO, and appears to now be recognizing the vitality of military and political power structures in the Western world, built over the course of many years, with great effort. These structures led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist world in the 20th century.
Aside from the Israeli – Palestinian issue, the visit to Saudi Arabia is designed to strengthen America’ alliance with the axis of Sunni, pragmatic, pro-American states. It comes as a response to Russia’s presence in Syria, and to the dangerous activities of the radical Iranian-led axis, which includes the Assad regime and Hezbollah.
Trump will probably seek to create a new regional cooperation bloc to combat extremism, terrorism, and violence. This bloc will be a platform dedicated to the objective of restoring stability to the Middle East. To that end, attempts to get Israeli – Palestinian negotiations going again look like they are part of a much larger initiative.
It is an initiative aimed at returning the US to its traditional leadership role in the Middle East, and strengthening America’s Middle Eastern allies, after a lengthy period in which they felt they had no tangible backing from Washington.
Edited by Yaakov Lappin
Co-edited by Benjamin Anthony (www.oursoldiersspeak.org)
Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF or the Foreign Ministry. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.