It is often said that American presidents campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Pre-election, they offer striking visions of what they will achieve, as if they were absolute monarchs. But in the real world, politics is the art of the possible and governance requires nuance and compromise. Many cheerleaders for President Trump assumed he would transform America’s Middle East foreign policy. The US Embassy would be moved to Jerusalem, the Iran deal would be eviscerated and the two-state solution would be history. Trump would be to Obama what Obama was to Bush.
Despite campaign pledges to ‘dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran’, there is no sign this will happen. At his confirmation hearing, James Mattis, the new Defence Secretary, said that the US had to stick to the agreement. Despite acknowledging its imperfections he declared that ‘we have to live up to it and work with our allies’. These allies (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) are the other signatories to the accord and they have no desire to renegotiate it. Simply, they are too busy doing business with and investing in Iran.
Trump has issued harsh rhetoric against the ayatollahs, putting Tehran formally ‘on notice’ for firing a ballistic missile, though quite what this means is unclear. Washington is imposing new sanctions on individuals and companies that help Iran’s missile program but realistically, the US will enforce the Iran deal, not dismantle it. Similarly, Trump vowed at last year’s AIPAC conference to ‘move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.’ But just before the first post inauguration phone call between Netanyahu and Trump, press secretary Sean Spicer said that the administration was merely ‘at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.’ He added later that the administration would do no more than ‘continue to consult with stakeholders’ on the decision.
Jordan and Egypt, two key US allies, are among the stakeholders opposed to what they see as a dangerously destabilising move. But Israel too may be wary, given the possibility that an embassy move could spark a wave of Palestinian violence or even a regional conflagration. It is probably safe to conclude that there will be no imminent change to the status quo.
The mood music in Washington has not quite been so black and white. A fortnight ago, Sean Spicer issued a statement stating that the ‘construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful’ in pursuing peace.
A White House statement urged ‘all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions…including settlement announcements’. This was because the US was ‘very interested in reaching a deal that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’.
More recently, in an interview with Israel Hayom Trump, while stressing the warmth of his sentiments towards Israel, criticised the government’s policy. He said: ‘I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace’.
This doesn’t suggest an automatic green light for annexation or negating a two-state solution. In the words of Dennis Ross, it appears designed to ‘chill some of the exuberance of those on the Israeli right who think they have a blank cheque.’
Trump made grandiose promises before he was elected. Now he is governing in prose, reality is proving a much tougher proposition.