by Mitchell Plitnick
Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump wanted to change US policy toward both Israel-Palestine and Iran. When Obama arrived in the Oval Office, he brought an ambitious foreign policy plan with him. He wanted to diminish the heavy U.S. footprint in the Middle East, “pivot toward Asia,” and rebuild the confidence in the United States as a sober actor on the world stage that George W. Bush had undermined with his calamitous invasion of Iraq.
At the beginning of his first term—after he made his initial speech indicating a willingness to improve relations with Iran—Obama devoted his efforts and political capital to trying to bring a Palestinian state into being. He knew there would be political costs, and although he underestimated them, he understood that it would take all the political capital he had to have any chance at productive talks.
By 2012, Obama recognized that he was not going to get the grand bargain between Israel and the Palestinians that he had hoped for. So he turned his attention toward Iran. Working with U.S. allies in Europe and through the United Nations, he pushed for sanctions to bring Iran to the table. The pressure paved the way for the nuclear talks that would eventually lead, in 2015, to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal.
Obama recognized that Israeli-Palestinian peace and the Iran nuclear deal were each very expensive in terms of political capital. He couldn’t afford to pursue both. It’s a lesson Donald Trump still doesn’t understand.
Trump came into office with advantages Obama could only dream of. Even when the Democrats controlled Congress, there was considerable dissent among them regarding Obama’s stances on Israeli settlements, his criticism of Israeli actions, and his perceived sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. There was also deep mistrust of diplomacy with Iran. These objections were enhanced by the sympathy of some leading Democrats for the positions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the influence of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups.
Trump’s party controlled both houses of Congress. Although not uniform in their level of support for Trump’s actions and goals, Republicans are almost unanimously against the Iran deal—even if some of the soberer Republicans were reluctant to destroy the credibility of the US by violating the deal—and against any pressure whatsoever on Israel. For Republican lobbyists and donors, virtually no position on Israel or Iran is too hawkish.
Trump‘s claims of pursuing the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians were belied by his actions, which reflected the same vision of “peace” as that of the Israeli right and their US supporters. Members of that latter group filled the key posts of U.S. ambassador to Israel (David Friedman), and the rest of the negotiating team (Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner). Thus, Trump went about raising tensions with Iran to their highest level in almost 40 years and shifting US policy from active, albeit biased, mediation in Israel-Palestine to direct efforts to implement permanent Israeli dominance over the Palestinians.
Ending the US-Palestinian Relationship
Although Trump destroyed the US relationship with the Palestinians, he was also working on assembling a united Middle Eastern front against Iran, what some have called an “Arab NATO.” Trying to attain both goals simultaneously would have been difficult under any circumstances. The inexperience and lack of understanding of the region of both the president and his closest advisors have only made both tasks much harder.
Trump’s advisers—including John Bolton and Mike Pompeo in addition to Greenblatt, Friedman, and Kushner—either failed to grasp or failed to convince the president of the difficult balancing act they were trying to pull off. The most glaring example is Trump’s impetuous decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. There were reasons that prior presidents—Clinton, Bush, and Obama—consistently decided to waive the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. They knew that it was an explosive move to take a key Palestinian demand off the table with no compensation. They also realized that it would impede efforts to increase cooperation between Israel and the Arab world, as well as complicating US efforts in the Arab world.
Trump simply ignored that reality. He likely believed that frustration with the Palestinians—most notably, the frustration he doubtless heard expressed from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS)—would mean that, after some initial protests, things would calm down and the US could proceed with its agenda in the region.
It is telling that Saudi King Salman, who had been largely out of the limelight as his son, MbS, moved forward with his new partnership with Trump, felt the need to intervene sharply in the attempt to force a resolution on the Palestinians that he knew neither the Palestinian people nor most of the citizens of the Arab world would ever accept.
Salman and the Saudi rulers before him have often made grandiose statements about supporting the Palestinians, but they’ve been less willing to act on their behalf. Still, that is a far cry from being seen as siding against the Palestinians, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem. Thus, he publicly contradicted his son. The king reaffirmed that the Saudi position was unchanged and that any acceptable peace deal must be based on the Saudi initiative of 2002 and include a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and a (rather vague) resolution on the Palestinian refugee issue. He also announced an $80 million grant to the Palestinian Authority to help it cope with the cutback in U.S. funding of the UN agency serving Palestinian refugees.
The rebuke complicated any potential expansion of Saudi cooperation with Israel against Iran, which is a key component of the plans Trump, Netanyahu, and MbS seem to be developing. Salman had stood idly by while MbS worked with the US and Israel on ways to shunt the Palestinian issue to the side. But when Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he knew the room for gradually increasing contacts with Israel had narrowed dramatically. As one diplomatic source told the Israeli daily Haaretz, “they told the administration, ‘what we could do for you before Jerusalem, we won’t be able to do now.’”
Yet the Trump plan continues to lurk in the shadows, despite the Palestinians’ refusal to engage, complete indifference from the Israeli government, diminishing support from the Arab world, and skepticism from every corner of the globe. But it is not the only example of Trumpian wishful thinking.
An “Arab NATO”
The idea of an “Arab NATO” is meant to isolate Iran. This Middle East Strategic Alliance “will serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East,” a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council told Reuters last month. In Trump talk, that means a united front to pressure Iran economically, strategically, and militarily to bring about regime change.
Increasing regional tensions is a tough sell, especially for countries that, even if they consider Iran an adversary, don’t see it as an existential or even a major threat. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, and others would see their interests better served by lowering tensions rather than raising them with Iran. But most of them will not simply ignore a US regional push, especially one with Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) backing.
What was a tough, but not impossible, sell was made more complicated by the eruption of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Reuters looked into this question and wrote, “While one source said the administration is concerned the quarrel could be an obstacle to the initiative, he and an Arab official both said Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had assured Washington the rift would not pose a problem to the alliance. The NSC spokesperson denied the rift was a hurdle.”
Much like it regarded the Palestinians, the Trump administration has substituted wishful thinking for serious policy considerations. As with the Palestinian case, it’s not that previous administrations didn’t know that Qatar was pricking the Saudis with their actions and policies. Some Qatari actions also conflicted with US policy, such as Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. But they realized that there were more important considerations, and that Gulf stability took precedence.
Trump doesn’t understand this. He doesn’t understand that not only Qatar but Oman as well needs to have some relationship with Iran. And beyond Iran, Trump doesn’t understand that, although Egypt might side with the Saudis and Emiratis in their spat with Qatar because of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups, the Egyptians are not interested in actively ratcheting up tensions with Iran.
And how could we expect such understanding when dealing with an administration that believes that building an Arab NATO—presumably without destroying the Gulf Cooperation Council—is possible despite escalating tension between Qatar and the Saudis?
Both the “Arab NATO” notion and the effort to force a Palestinian surrender are very bad ideas. The Trump administration’s clear inability to cope with the massive challenges such policy pursuits entail is reassuring. Neither idea is likely to materialize.
But we’ve already seen damage from these “strategic efforts.” The Palestinian situation is more hopeless than ever. The Saudi-Qatari dispute is escalating. The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal raises all these stakes. The increasingly sour US-Turkey relationship is also drawing together a bipolar regional conflict, as Turkey grows closer to Iran as well as Qatar. A region that has witnessed massive upheaval as dictators brutally smashed the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring is now looking at the potential for an entrenched and expanded regional conflict. If Trump’s policies would be disastrous if enacted, his failures are no bargain either.