Global Affairs

Trump's dangerous vision of the Middle East

It is one thing to shake things up but that does not mean what is likely to follow - selective engagement - will further the cause of peace in the region.

LONDON • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Europe today brimming with confidence. The United States has just recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital city, a move which Mr Netanyahu touts as confirmation that his policies are being vindicated, and that developments in the Middle East now increasingly coincide with Israel's interests.

To all intents and purposes, therefore, "Bibi" Netanyahu's Europe trip resembles more of a victory lap.

But the Israeli Prime Minister may be rejoicing too soon. What President Donald Trump has done in his decision on Jerusalem is to upend the entire history of America's Middle East diplomacy. And it may be a harbinger of a new US policy in the region, one which is best termed as "selective engagement" of a kind which is unlikely to ultimately favour either Israel or the broader cause of peace, but may well endure long after Mr Trump leaves the White House.

Notwithstanding all his melodramatic, tear-jerking references to history, justice, or the "right of the people of Israel to the holy city", the bare truth is that the Israeli Prime Minister has always used the city as merely a pawn in his personal political games.

Back in 1995, it was Mr Netanyahu who mobilised lobbyists and lawmaker friends in the US Congress to pass the Jerusalem Embassy Act, legislation which demanded that American presidents move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

He did this not because he cared about the city - he knew that no US president at that time was ever likely to relocate the American embassy - but because he wanted to derail efforts by the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was within striking distance of reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu reckoned - correctly as it turned out - that the dispute over who controls Jerusalem would provide the dynamite to blow up any and every chance for Middle East peace. And so it does to this day.


By a strange twist of fate, this week marks the 68th anniversary since David Ben-Gurion, the legendary founder of modern Israel, declared Jerusalem as his country's capital. It will be Mr Netanyahu, a man who negates everything Mr Ben-Gurion stood for, who will now bask in the glory of having achieved the US recognition. And amidst all this congratulatory backslapping, nobody is likely to mention another inconvenient detail: that Jerusalem remains one of Israel's poorest and least developed cities. Never mind the facts; just feel the vision.

Yet the ramifications of this Jerusalem episode go much further, revealing important details about President Trump's methods of working, and about his vision of the world in general and the Middle East in particular.

Soon after coming to power in January this year, Mr Trump appears to have been prevailed upon by other politicians, Congress and members of the Washington bureaucracy to give up or at least shelve some of the more controversial policies outlined during his electoral campaign.

Mr Trump did not, for instance, declare China a "currency manipulator", did not issue a formal ultimatum to the Europeans to increase their defence expenditure immediately or face US abandonment, did not unleash a major trade war, tear up the nuclear deal with Iran or, indeed, recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Most observers - and quite a few leaders around the world - promptly breathed a sigh of relief, and assumed that, once shelved, such dangerous policies would not return to the Oval Office in-tray.

However, it is now clear that this initial restraint is not a permanent one, and that the President's instincts to pursue policies he believes in regardless of how outlandish these may be remains as strong as ever. That is, essentially, what has happened to the nuclear deal with Iran where the President was initially persuaded to exercise restraint, but ultimately did not resist the temptation to pick the Iran deal apart. And that is what has happened to the Jerusalem question as well; an initial restraint, followed by a sudden decision to push the matter through, regardless of anticipated consequences.

Both the US State Department and the Pentagon were unanimous in their recommendations that recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital at this stage would be dangerous and counter-productive. But President Trump went ahead regardless; so much for the theory that the "grown-ups" in the administration can mitigate the President's impulsive behaviour. So, those who still believe that a political and trade confrontation between the US and China can be averted would be well-advised to look to the Jerusalem episode as a warning not to take the current lull for granted.

The decision on Jerusalem also highlights another aspect of policymaking under Mr Trump: the President's apparent pleasure in shaking things up, in simply refusing to accept that destroying the status quo can be dangerous. Instead, he sees the overturning of existing policies as an opportunity, as his chance to mould the world according to his views.

He simply does not believe that "Middle East peace", that elusive notion which enthralled all of us for decades, is synonymous with Arab-Israeli peace. He also does not believe that any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal could reconcile the wider Arab world to the Jewish state; instead, both he and Mr Jared Kushner, his son-in-law who will soon unveil his own proposals for the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, believe that the Palestinian question is yesterday's story, can be largely ignored and pales into insignificance in comparison with the cooperation which the Jewish state can accomplish with the traditional monarchies of the Gulf.

There is an element of truth in all such views. And it is not obvious that previous US presidents who accepted the traditional parameters of American diplomacy and often tried to mediate their way between these parameters were more successful. But Mr Trump deceives himself if he believes that, by simply throwing all these assumptions to the winds, he has hit upon a new strategy which could somehow work.

For although the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not the only crisis in the Middle East and perhaps no longer the most important one either, it still holds the imagination of the Arab world; for better or worse, it is the prism through which the region sees itself, and sees others.

It is also the generator of a sense of injustice about the alleged wrongs of the Western world against Arab nations, and the best catalyst for anti-American sentiments in the region, as events over the past few days have indicated, and as the series of pan-Islamic summits which will be held this week will reaffirm.

It is this sense of injustice which feeds into violence and terrorism, and Mr Trump's actions will do nothing to reverse it.

To make matters worse, President Trump's new approach is not accompanied by a commitment for further US engagement in the region. Indeed, precisely the opposite: the key assumption of the Trump White House is that by encouraging the Israelis and a pro-Western coalition of Saudis and a few other Gulf monarchies to cooperate either tacitly or publicly, the US would be able to largely withdraw from a region from which it buys little but still sells plenty of weapons.

It is a policy which won't work if only because neither Israel nor the Arab monarchies share precisely the same objectives or have exactly the same interest in pacifying the Middle East, even if they could do so. But it is one which largely absolves Washington of responsibilities, and may well continue long after Mr Trump has left the White House, virtually condemning the Middle East to decades of further turmoil.

Which is why, as curious as it may seem, most of Israel's political, military and security establishment does not share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's joy at America's Jerusalem decision.

For it knows that this will render Israel not less, but more, vulnerable. And it also understands Mr Trump's decision for what it is: a further distancing of the US from shouldering responsibility for the maintenance of order in the Middle East.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'Trump's dangerous vision of the Middle East'. Subscribe