November 18, 2018

Trump’s Middle East policy is unpredictable

When political outsider Donald Trump claimed victory in the United States presidential election, most of the world was shocked, as no one had any idea what his foreign policy agenda was — or if he even had one. 

“I don’t believe that we have ever faced an international political reality that is as unpredictable as the one we are seeing develop in Washington today,” Gershon Baskin, co-chair of the Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives (IPCRI), said. 

This unpredictability is especially evident in the Middle East, where analysts are concerned with three main issues: the civil war in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump has expressed contradictory views on regional issues. Some argue that he simply will align himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin, rip up the Iran nuclear deal and move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

One thing analysts do not question, however, is Trump’s ability to shake up things. 

“Anything is possible, but not everything is probable,” Dan Rothem, a senior policy consultant at Washington’s S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, said. 

It seems, though, this unpredictability might be just what the Middle East needs. 

“As a Palestinian, I am more optimistic,” Suheir Jamil, a former researcher for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said. “I have a belief that things, if they don’t get radical, then they won’t be solved.” 

“Donald Trump is unpredictable, yes, but for the benefit of all,” Jamil added. 

President Barack Obama’s administration has often chosen non-intervention in the conflict-ridden region. “The Middle East lost a lot of its importance in the past five years even though it has become more and more problematic,” Mofid Deak, a former U.S. diplomat of Palestinian descent, said. “I am not too sure that a U.S. president wants to invest a lot of his time in resolving the issues of the Middle East.”

Some blame the Obama administration for the escalation of the conflict in Syria, for not doing enough to forge a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, and for brokering a nuclear deal with a hostile enemy, Iran.

Trump campaigned on a pro-Israel, pro-Russia, anti-Iran platform, and this is reflected in his choice of members of his cabinet and administration.

As an ardent supporter of Israel, Trump announced his support for the contentious plan to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move that could incite violence from the Palestinians. Moving the embassy would recognize Israel’s determination to have a united Jerusalem as its capital and solidify Israel’s control over East Jerusalem. Palestinians say that East Jerusalem must be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Moving the embassy could polarize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“For Israel, a Trump presidency means a complete reorganizing both of priorities in terms of policy and personnel,” Yisrael Medad, a volunteer spokesperson for the council that oversees Jewish communities in the West Bank, said. 

This also could be a way of provoking the Muslim world, and many hardliners in the United States and Israel would probably support this decision. 

“The most important thing is that the new presidency will understand that the Islamic radicals want to change the world order and eventually make Islam great again,” Yossi Kuperwasser, director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said. “Whereas Trump says he wants America to be great again.” 

Many believe that moving the embassy could trigger violence because it would be a clear symbol of support for the State of Israel and would halt any possible peace negotiations. 

“The peace process is like a bicycle,” Deak said. “You have to keep cycling, otherwise the bicycle will fall.”

However, according to Rebecca Bronstein, a researcher at MITVIM, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, “The two-state solution is not even on Trump’s agenda.” 

The Iran deal, on the other hand, is. 

Trump’s supporters in Israel want him to scrap the deal because they see Iran, which funds the militant Shia group Hezbollah, as a threat, especially with nuclear weapons. The deal’s supporters say that it was the best option for the Obama administration and that it has, in fact, decreased the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. 

Foreign issues were not at the top of Trump’s campaign agenda. Some analysts believe he will focus most of his energy, at least at the beginning of his term, on domestic issues. However, Kuperwasser sees a lot of changes in store for the region. 

“The entire attitude toward the U.S. is going to change because, until now, radicals believed that they could benefit from the weakness of the West as manifested by the policies of President Obama,” he asserted.  

Others, like Rothem, are unsure. 

“The very foundation of the world order as we have come to know is put into question,” Rothem said. “Some issues are going to look very different in four years than today. It is very hard to guess which ones.”