Can Trump Reset the Middle East?

by ANDREW E. HARROD February 21, 2017

Despite dismal approval ratings at home, President Donald Trump's popularity is growing in the United States' greatest Middle Eastern ally. "The messiah is here and he is going to change everything," Israeli journalist Yoaz Hendel said, describing widespread Israeli opinion toward Trump. On February 8, a Washington Institute for Near East Policy panel analyzed the possibilities and limits of a reset for U.S.-Israel relations. This just days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's February 15 visit with the president in Washington, D.C.

Washington Institute Executive Director Robert Satloff reflected upon the "fascinating experience" of President Barack Obama's paradoxical relationship with Israel. On the one hand, the "Obama Administration successfully engineered with Israel the deepest, broadest, most profound military, security and intelligence relationship of any administration." By contrast, "on the most profound political and strategic issues - Iran, the peace process - the United States and Israel were at loggerheads [in] one of the tensest, rawest, most angst-filled political and strategic relationships."

Satloff predicted that Trump's administration will list as an objective the reparation of "this sense of deep political and strategic divide" between the two nations, with an intended result of making American relations with Israel better than ever. He said that the relationship that evolves between Trump and Netanyahu could eventually rival the close friendship between former President Bill Clinton and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Hendel (speaking from Israel via Skype) said that in Trump's black-and-white "clash of civilizations" outlook on Islam, the president sees Israel as the "bad guy" facing off against the "good guy." But Satloff was more pessimistic about Trump's professed deal-making ability to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Most objective observers just conclude that the objective circumstances for success aren't there," he said, pointing out the corruption and violence marring Palestinian politics. "There are all sorts of other things you need to do. You need to build up effective Palestinian governance, [but] that stuff isn't as sexy as getting around a table and negotiating the best deal ever."

Former American Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiator David Makovsky concurred with his colleague Satloff. Concerning the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state, he said, "I don't think we are ready for a state. For me the whole issue is premature. We have a dysfunctional situation." In Makovsky's stated opinion, ailing 82-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will most likely be succeeded by a "muddled, collectivist leadership."

Using a baseball analogy, Makovsky warned against swinging for the fences and risk striking out; instead, he advised, "If we can't hit a home run, maybe we can hit some singles." Likewise, rather than attempting to resolve intractable Israeli-Palestinian disputes like Jerusalem's ultimate disposition, he recommended seeking practical improvements in the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians. "How do you move off the utter, utter impasse now?" he asked. "How do you give hope and dignity to both sides? Change some dynamics on the ground but don't touch these supercharged final status issues that each one is a political minefield?"

According to Hendel, most Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution and are wary of further territorial concessions to the PA, given that Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip ultimately empowered Hamas to attack Israel. Rightwing Israelis believe that at least 30 percent of the disputed West Bank/Judea and Samaria must remain under Israeli control in any final settlement; Netanyahu has said that this arrangement would be a Palestinian "state-minus." Highlighting this contentious issue, the Knesset recently passed an Israeli law that legalized thousands of Israeli settlements on privately owned Palestinian land in the disputed territories. According to Makovsky, this highly controversial law is "something Netanyahu wanted like a hole in the head before his visit to Washington."

Hendel said that Israelis need to think outside the box when it comes to final settlement issues - like which territories Israel would retain and what political arrangements Palestinians would receive. "For the first time, we need to bring something to the table - an Israeli vision regarding Judea and Samaria," he said, pointing out that Trump might otherwise revert to past failed settlement proposals in ignorance of Israeli-Palestinian conflict complexities. He added that some Israelis worry that Trump will one day "wake up in the morning and will decide that he wants the Nobel Prize and he will call Netanyahu and tell him, ‘Look. I want to make Israel great again. Let's cut a deal.'"

Beyond the consideration of the American-Israel relationship, Satloff gave his take on how the Trump Administration must navigate various policy conundrums like simultaneously countering both Iran and the Islamic State. Touching on another Trump objective to toughen the American stance on Iran, Satloff said that "destroying ISIS may be urgent, but pushing back on Iran is important - and indeed pushing back on Iran is in many ways essential to the ultimate destruction of ISIS."

A true victory instead of a "Pyrrhic victory" against ISIS (that is, a "win" that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to a defeat) will require a future "modicum of reasonably effective Sunni governance in the areas of western Iraq and Syria," where Iran's allies once misruled. Failure to accomplish this could spur a recurrence of Sunni jihadists' rising from the ashes of defeat. "This is very much like the recitation of generations in Genesis," Satloff commented. "Al-Qaeda begat Al-Qaeda in Iraq; Al-Qaeda in Iraq begat ISIS. Will ISIS begat [the] son of ISIS - perhaps an even worse, even more venomous Sunni jihadist threat?"

Makovsky pointed out that many of the conflicts rampaging the Middle East have a silver lining of making strange bedfellows; threats from Iran, ISIS (against which Egypt has lost 5,000 soldiers fighting in the Sinai) and other jihadists like Hamas have allied Israel with pro-Western Sunni Arab regimes in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States. Rabin often visited the capitals of Egypt and Jordan before his trips to Washington, D.C., while Netanyahu today has a well-established pattern of regularly telephoning Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Noting that the nation of Israel has become the only Sunni state in the Middle East to be Jewish, Makovsky added that the Jewish State "likes this role as regional advocate [that] has a lot of cachet for Israel."

A version of this piece also appeared on

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School.  He is admitted to the Virginia State Bar.  He has published over 400 articles concerning various political and religious topics at the American Thinker, the Blaze, Breitbart, Capital Research Center, Daily Caller, FrontPage Magazine, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Independent Journal Review, Investigative Project on Terrorism, Jihad Watch, Mercatornet, Philos Project, Religious Freedom Coalition, Washington Times, and World, among others. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies.  He can be followed on twitter @AEHarrod.

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