America is back in the Middle East
President Trump completed his landmark visit to Saudi Arabia and to Israel as well as the Vatican, NATO and the G7 summits, and is back to the intensive political dealing and wheeling challenging him at home. Many words have been spoken and written attempting to characterize and to evaluate Trump’s goals and achievements during his interesting choice for his first foreign visits. Here are some observations that merit attention.
- Business first: The first leg of the trip’ Saudi Arabia, was a major success for both sides. The royal red carpet was rolled out and the president showered with palatial Middle Eastern hospitality – this included contracts being signed for long-term US export deals amounting to half a trillion $. The move will provide jobs in America and may help Trumps’ limping status at home. The meeting held in Jedah with 50 Sunni Muslim leaders injected new impetus in Saudia’s leading role facing Iran and the Shia aggression. Trumps unusual choice for his first foreign destination seems to be paying off.
- Symbolism second: In contrast to the first leg of the trip, the stay in Israel lacked an economic dimension. It was all sugar, milk and honey. The aim was to project friendship towards the Jewish State and its people, publically emphasizing the warm personal relationship with P.M. Netanyahu, in contrast to those that characterized Obama and the Israeli leader. The program was packed with gestures. Embracing speeches, visits to the Western Wall, to Yad-Vashem holocaust museum, and numerous photo opportunities where exceptional warmth and friendship were clearly demonstrated. Netanyahu waited 8 long years to have a president who is not Obama and Trump wanted to demonstrate that he is not Obama. They both got what they wanted.
- Trump is not Obama! One can only imagine the reaction of Netanyahu, or that of his coalition partners, if Obama had refused the presence of any Israeli official to accompany him on his tour to the Western wall, or to an Obama official saying that the Western Wall is not part of Israel. Equally, one can only imagine the Palestinian reaction had Obama, or any previous president for that matter, spent two intensive days in the region without mentioning the settlements, two state solution or occupation. Netanyahu also realizes that the American embassy is not likely to move to Jerusalem in the near future. So how has Trump been exempted from the usual bickering of these players?
Is it possible that what the eyes saw is only part of the picture and in the meeting rooms the tones were different? Are the leaders afraid to anger this unpredictable new President? Either way, for the time being, Donald Trump enjoys a great deal of credit from the different parties. Since it is impossible to please all sides at the same time – it is safe to say that somebody is miscalculating.
- Trump is not a Neo-Con’: History, of a sort, was marked during the visit in Saudi Arabia. The leader of the democratic world did not mention human rights, civil rights or the rights of women. It was all about business and interests – a strategic alliance with the Sunni regimes, focusing on Iran and Isis as the joint arch-enemies. Values out – interests and business in.
- America is back in the Middle East: Other than his famous Cairo speech, Obama’s last 8 years were characterized by US withdrawal from the M.E. Judging from Trumps’ promises during his electoral race, many hoped – or feared (depending on one’s views) that if elected, America will turn to isolationism, leaving a deeper void in its presence in this region. The impression now is that Trumps view of U.S interests around the world and the Middle East are very different from those he projected just a few months ago. This is a very positive development. The region cannot allow a vacuum created by American withdrawal, to be filled by ISIS, Iran and its proxies.
- Can we talk about a “Trump doctrine”? It is still far too early, and it also goes against the image that Trump has earned as a person lacking knowledge or interest, in complicated, international affairs. Yet, as time passes one can detect buds that can blossom into a cohesive foreign policy. The visit in the M.E, as well as the use of force against Syria, following Assad’s use of chemical weapons, his attempt to establish an American-Sunni alliance and his tough talk aimed at foes (North Korea) and friends (his NATO ally’s demanding higher spending on defense) can translate into a specific doctrine. Trump definitely built a strong team around him – that can both fine tune and carry it out, as long as this administration will has a long enough tenure – something that is not at all certain.
- The term PEACE is back in business: without noticing, the term “peace” has once again become part of the M.E. vocabulary. That is – Israeli-Palestinian peace. Trump talks about a historic deal. Mahmoud Abbas talks about peace, as do Netanyahu and the Saudi king. This alone renders Trump’s visit in the region worthwhile. No one knows how it can be reached and whether the sides are willing to make the necessary compromises, but at least the “word” is out of the cellar and seeing daylight again.
- Can Trump succeed where all previous presidents failed? At this point, very little is known about the next steps of the U.S administration. Some question Trumps interest in pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace, a mine-field that all previous presidents failed to cross. Others believe that he will be so busy with the “Russia investigations” that there will be very little energy left for any M.E peace moves. There are also those who mention Trump’s lack of knowledge, or understanding of the history and complexity of this region.
However, this is truly a rare time of opportunity, which makes a large deal that includes most of the Arab and Muslim world, more likely that any time in the past. There is a convergence of will (President Trump) and interests (the fight against ISIS and holding Iran at bay) that is pushing yet another attempt to solve the Palestinian issue. The fight against ISIS created a de-facto alliance that can be strengthened once the Palestinian issue is solved. It seems that Trump and his administration too believe that the Israeli –Palestinian conflict is at the heart of the M.E problems and that solving it is a key to regional stability.
Trump is not interested in the details – for that he has a team, in particular his special emissary Jason Greenblatt who turns out to be a key figure. Greenblatt works quietly, thoroughly studying the positions, obstacles, figures and characters and at this stage, is not committed to previous formulae. He is open to new ideas, which is probably why Trump did not repeat all the regular slogans common to all leaders since the early 1990’s. There are already reports according to which the U.S is demanding from Netanyahu much more significant steps than agreed by his cabinet on the eve of Trumps visit. The ceremonies, receptions and dinners are over. Now is the time for hard work, creative ideas and mainly – courageous leadership.
The stability of Netanyahu’s Government is likely to be tested – probably sooner than later. Netanyahu, as well as Mahmoud Abbas, will have to make hard choices. This time they will have to “report“ to an impatient, short-tempered American president that wants results.