Trump Goes to the Middle East

President Donald Trump’s impending trip to the Middle East is intended to strengthen relations with America’s allies in the region. The president’s travels are his first overseas ventures since attaining the office, which signals the importance of the trip to the administration. His itinerary includes visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories in hopes also of spurring negotiations toward a peace agreement between those two parties. Yet the consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian effort remain highly speculative.

Shifting concerns and alignments by nations in the area appear to offer possibilities for improved relations between Israel and several Arab neighbors. But long-standing obstacles, especially regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations, remain in place as well. The chances for moving the two parties toward resolution of their issues depend on the relative influence of these pro-con features and the perceived authority of the U.S. president.

The most dramatic shift of attitudes has arisen from the threat of Iran as a growing regional power. Several Arab states including Saudi Arabia, which is also part of the president’s itinerary, worry about Iran’s aggressive behavior. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu regards Iran as an existential threat to his country. The common concerns have led to cooperative security and economic arrangements between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors. With Israel no longer regarded as a foe, Arab states could be positioned to pressure Palestinians to be more forthcoming at a negotiation table.

Still, while Arab leaders are more accommodating to Israel, surveys show that their populations continue to regard the Jewish state as an enemy. Tourism to Israel is discouraged. Journalists and teachers from Egypt and Jordan have been punished for visiting across their borders. Feature stories and cartoons in Arab newspapers commonly include anti-Semitic tropes.

Perhaps the most regrettable contradiction in the quest for peace is what is taught to Palestinian children. During Palestinian President Abbas’s recent visit to the United States he said, “We are raising our youth, our children, and our grandchildren on a culture of peace.” When delivered at a press conference in Washington, these words went unchallenged. Yet a report on the Palestinian elementary school curriculum indicates that it “teaches students to be martyrs, demonizes and denies the existence of Israel, and focuses on a ‘return’ to an exclusively Palestinian homeland.”

Consistent with these teachings, Palestinians have for years bombed, stabbed, and driven vehicles into Israelis—men, women, children, and the elderly. While in Israeli prisons the terrorists and their families receive as much as $3,000-plus per month from Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. If killed during their murderous actions, the terrorists are deemed “martyrs.” Their families receive cash from the PA and schools and sports stadiums are named after them. The Israelis contend that the payments are an incentive for more terrorism.

When meeting with the Palestinian president at the White House, Trump urged that the PA cease making payments to the terrorists and their families. Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Abbas, said the idea that payments be stopped was “insane.”

Despite such hardened attitudes, Palestinian security forces under Abbas’s control have at some levels cooperated with Israelis to forestall terror attacks. This ironic behavior derives in part from political divisions among the Palestinians. President Abbas heads Fatah, the political party that controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. It is rivaled by Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip. Unlike Fatah, Hamas openly aims to eliminate Israel and is regarded as a terrorist organization by much of the west. It is often against Hamas loyalists in the West Bank that Abbas’s security forces take action.

Which highlights another dilemma. If Netanyanu and Abbas were to negotiate, Hamas would not be at the table. Where this leaves the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza—still ruled by Hamas and geographically separated from the West Bank—is anybody’s guess.

Layered upon these uncertainties is the question of how much influence any U.S. president can have in the quest for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Obama tried but failed and in the end was viewed as ineffective by both parties. President Trump, though still early in his term, is mired in domestic political conflict, which cannot help his stature when dealing with overseas issues.

Yet perhaps there is hope in the oddly positive reactions to Trump by both the Palestinian and Israeli leadership. Abbas reportedly was surprised to be favorably impressed by Trump when they met at the White House. Netanyahu had already expressed delight that Trump had become president.

So what would constitute resuscitation of the peace process? As a start, an announced willingness by each party to give something that is desired by the other. Netanyahu might agree to suspend settlement activity in areas likely to become part of a future Palestinian state. Abbas might agree to suspend paying terrorists and celebrating them as martyrs. If meaningful actions such as these cannot be undertaken the chances for a “deal” in the near future will recede ever further.

Whether Trump will succeed in promoting Middle East peace is yet to be tested. Success where so many others have failed seems unlikely. Still, he is the only president who has written a book titled The Art of the Deal.



About the Author
Leonard Cole is an adjunct professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey, USA, and of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where he is the Director of the Program on Terror Medicine and Security.