September 25, 2018

The Trump-Russia black box rattles the Middle East

On the day President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met in Washington, I wrote an article for Maariv Daily that began with the following words: “here is a question that no Israeli Prime Minister needed to ponder until the meeting between Netanyahu and Trump: what’s proper and what’s improper for an Israeli PM to say to an American President concerning Russia.” In other words: can Israel trust the American administration, the president, to keep Israel’s secrets from the Russians? Should Netanyahu assume that what he shares with Trump will not find its way to Vladimir Putin?

This is a serious question, a serious worry, that becomes more serious with every revelation, such as the one concerning Attorney General Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador. Of course, we do not know why Sessions decided to meet with the Russian ambassador. It might have been an innocent meeting of no significance. But Israel has reason for caution. A Russian military force is stationed on its border, and not far from that Russian airplanes are bombing Syrian rebel forces.

During the Obama era, Israel learned to live, reluctantly, with an American administration that seemed quite indifferent to the idea of a Russia that’s more involved in Middle East affairs. Israel had to recognize, as I wrote in October of last year, that Russia is the Middle East’s new sheriff. “Necessity breeds friendship. In Israel’s case, the Kremlin became a necessity for two very much related reasons: Russia’s growing presence in Middle East affairs and the simultaneous American withdrawal from the region. To put it bluntly, Israel trusts Russia’s intention to become a key player in the region more than it trusts the United States’ intention to stop that from happening.”

That was then – when Obama was still in power. Since then, the questions about the Russians have become even more troubling. If Obama seemed indifferent to Russian meddling, the Trump administration might tend to encourage Russian meddling. If Obama’s intentions were maddeningly passive, Trump’s intentions are suspiciously mysterious.

In the two-day conference of the Jewish People Policy Institute that I attended earlier this week, discussion of Russian intentions in the region was front and center. The background paper prepared for the conference clarified: “American-Russian understandings could limit Israel’s maneuvering room. At the same time, an American-Russian or American-Chinese conflict could create risks and dilemmas for Israel.” The discussions during the conference were more detailed: The Russians are a key player in the future of Syria and, as a result, could have influence on the future of the Israeli-Syrian border. They are a key player in deciding how much pressure can be used to confront Iran’s expansionist policies in the region.

And Trump’s relations with the Russians, or lack thereof, are still a mystery. Maybe all the suspicions and allegations hurled at him are no more than politically-motivated slanders. Maybe Trump has dark ties with the Russians. Who knows?

I assume that the Prime Minister of Israel doesn’t know. He may have more information about this issue than what we get in the papers, or he may not. He is probably more qualified to analyze the risks and the benefits that the unorthodox Russian-US ties might offer. Like him, the leaders of other countries in the region – the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Turks – have to make an assessment based on partial information concerning this key ingredient in Middle East affairs. If the US and Russia cooperate in the region, that’s one thing. If the US and Russia are on a collision course in the region, that’s quite another. Thus, the regional disquiet that was a constant feature in the later years of the Obama era continues.

US-Russia ties are a key issue, and Russia-Iran ties are a key issue. At the JPPI conference, most experts with whom I spoke, or those I heard speaking, were skeptical about the prospects of a Russia-Iran breach. They assume that the Russians, while not enthusiastic about Iran, feel more comfortable with them than with other forces in the region. Among other things, because Iran was always smart enough not to give an impression that they intend to meddle in the affairs of Russia, or involve themselves in activities that threaten to annoy Russia.

This leaves the region with an unanswered question concerning the most urgent policy issue the region: Will the Trump administration truly work to contain Iran – and thus, at least to a certain extent, to disrupt Russian plans? Or maybe Trump’s ties with Russia will lead to a moderation of US policy towards Iran? The black box of the Trump-Russia relations worries many Americans, but it worries US allies in the Middle East even more. At a certain point, they will have to make decisions based on their understanding of the Trump administration. At a certain point, the back box will open. We might not know what Trump or his men had in mind as they were speaking to Russian ambassadors prior to the election, but we will surely see how the actual policies of the Trump administration come into shape. The policies will tell us everything we need to know.