A change in US presidents usually only occurs every eight years. In the past 36 years, only one president – George H. W. Bush – served a single term. Moreover, the election of populist Donald Trump in November was exceptionally tumultuous.
While President Trump has unarguably been a polarising figure, it’s crucial to divorce oneself from the rancour of the campaign and take stock of Trump’s positions on Israel and the Middle East, as well as the team he has assembled for key cabinet and diplomatic positions.
In doing so, we can find ample grounds for both hope and concern.
Trump has broadly criticised much of Barack Obama’s Middle East policy – particularly his signature Iranian nuclear deal, his management of the ISIS threat and his inconsistent and at times irrationally critical, even vindictive, treatment of Israel.
Prima facie, this is good news. While Trump has long since walked back his initial campaign rhetoric of scrapping the deal with Iran entirely, Trump’s team and the Republican-controlled Congress now appear to be on the same page about tough enforcement of the terms of the deal and potentially renegotiating parts of it from a position of strength – including the threat of restored sanctions.
Furthermore, both Trump and incoming Secretary of Defence James Mattis have expressed great concern about the growing conventional military threat Iran and its proxies pose in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, and a readiness to respond accordingly.
This would be a welcome change of course from the record and approach of the Obama Administration, which turned a blind eye to numerous nuclear deal violations by Iran as well as downplaying Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and military expansionism.
Regarding Syria, Trump’s position has been more equivocal. The heavy-handed intervention of the Russian air force on the side of the Assad regime in the face of US indecisiveness under Obama has, in many ways, reduced the options available to the Trump Administration.
On the ISIS front, too, it is unclear following US disengagement from Iraq whether Trump is interested in making major adjustments to Obama’s far from decisive strategy of managing the threat from the comfortable distance of air strikes and through regional proxies and partnerships, though Trump’s inaugural comments on defeating “radical Islamic extremism” are a positive step.
Finally, Trump’s apparent willingness to challenge preconceived notions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the peace process in general is an especially encouraging sign.
While Trump’s policy has often been mischaracterised in the media as an abandonment of the two-state paradigm, what it really amounts to is a long-overdue reassessment and reality check on the situation on the ground.
As Trump’s adviser on Jewish affairs and now incoming Ambassador to Israel David Friedman explained to Ynet in August, Trump was not going to “blindly” try to implement an agreement – a deal doomed to fail if it does not address the many obstacles on the Palestinian side, like Hamas’ control of Gaza and the Palestinian Authority’s incitement to violence against Israelis, and refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish homeland.
No doubt, a reassessment will likely kill some diplomatic “sacred cows” along the way.
One prominent example will hopefully be the State Department’s anachronistic reluctance to officially recognise any part of Jerusalem as belonging to Israel (let alone be its capital).
Then there’s another sacred cow – global diplomatic obsession with Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem.
It was this particular obsession, fanned in no small measure by the Obama Administration, that led to the counterproductive United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016. It was also a mantra repeated more recently at the Paris “Mideast peace conference” in mid-January.
Trump sensibly said he would have vetoed the resolution and dismissed the Paris confab as a pointless detour from peace, which can only emerge from direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop should be commended for also criticising Resolution 2334 and distancing Australia from the conclusions of the Paris conference on similar grounds. The same applies to the UK May Government’s critique of John Kerry’s speech and the Paris exercise.
The settlement canard – the false claim that settlements are constantly usurping more and more “Palestinian land” and making a two-state resolution impossible – will be something in particular to watch out for and counter in the coming weeks during Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s long-awaited and much-anticipated visit to Australia – the first by a sitting Israeli PM.
Yet despite some encouraging signs in Trump’s positions and postings, there are genuine worries as well. His sometime failure to consistently draw a clear distinction between all Muslims and Islamist extremists is offensive and unacceptable. His apparent refusal to sufficiently distance himself from the so-called “alt-right”, including antisemitic and racist hooligans, is disturbing. Trump’s harsh attitudes towards immigration, his protectionist and isolationist posturing, caustic comments on social media, and abrasive temperament are also all problematic.
His tougher stance vis-á-vis China, certainly long overdue on Beijing’s worrying South China Sea aggressiveness, yet softening towards Russia, could each have deep implications, not only for the Middle East, but for Australia as well.
As a confrontational populist candidate with little conventional political experience, Trump can’t assume having the confidence of either the American public or key US allies in discharging his formidable responsibility to lead the world’s largest superpower – it must be earned, though the insular thrust of his inauguration speech was not encouraging. The time for talking and tweeting has passed. Now is the time for Trump to put words into action and learn from mistakes of the past, particularly on the world stage. There is much good his Administration can achieve – if it can demonstrate the greater discipline, balance and maturity that the rigours of office can hopefully engender.