Change sweeping across the Middle East has prompted several Sunni Arab states to engage more closely with Israel. Shared strategic threats – the grow Binyamin Netanyahu kept a straight face as news of Donald Trump’s victory astonished the world. However the Israeli Prime Minister’s feeling did not have to be displayed in order to be guessed – probably relief, not to say euphoria, in the face of what has just ended, and hope in the face of what now begins.
By sheer coincidence, the conservative Netanyahu’s protracted premiership, a cumulative ten years over three decades, has so far been served entirely opposite Democratic administrations – George W. Bush’s eight Republican years overlapped the shifts of Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
Paradoxically, though no Israeli politician can rival Netanyahu’s intimate familiarity with things American, his relations with the US administrations he faced were always cool, and often also contentious.
Bill Clinton was tied by the umbilical cord to Israel’s Labor leaders, and to this day takes pride in having midwifed the Oslo Accords. It was his pressure that convinced a grudging Netanyahu to cede most of Hebron, the West Bank city where ancient Israel’s patriarchs are buried, to the Palestinian Authority.
Barack Obama posed an even harsher challenge, which he announced loudly in his Cairo Speech of spring 2009. Titling that oration “A New Beginning,” Obama apologised to Iran for Washington’s role in a 1953 coup, scolded France for its ban on Muslim headscarves, called for a rapprochement between Islam and the West, bandied quotes from the Quran, related Israel’s establishment to the Holocaust, and demanded an end to West Bank settlements – to the applause of his Arab audience.
Even most moderate Israelis found that address to be pretentious, ignorant, conceited and reckless, but for Netanyahu, though he could not show it, the speech was a declaration of war. The two men would subsequently meet many times and establish a reasonable working relationship, but tension animated it, and then intensified – first when Netanyahu tacitly backed Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid, and then when he went to Capitol Hill and urged Congress to reject Obama’s deal with Iran.
Obama was understood in Netanyahu’s circle much the way the departing President’s Republican adversaries describe him: a former congregant of a radical pastor and a product of Harvard University’s liberal elite who sides reflexively with the underdog in any conflict, and thus faulted Israel for the enmity of its enemies.
That was on the theoretical side. On the practical side, most Israelis, let alone Netanyahu, feel Obama has seriously damaged Western interests in the Middle East, three times – first, when he pushed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak overboard in winter 2011; then in 2013, when he failed to deliver on his threat to respond militarily against the Syrian army should it use chemical weapons; and finally in 2015, by striking the nuclear deal with Iran.
The abandonment of Mubarak, America’s most veteran and reliable Arab ally, was faulted for its inconsistency as well as its consequences. Obama ignored Saudi Arabia’s despotism, and worse, he sat idly by while Iran brutalised thousands of freedom fighters as they protested their government’s theft of the 2009 presidential election. The result of Mubarak’s removal was his replacement by Islamists who were about to impose an Islamist and authoritarian constitution when the army deposed them.
Obama’s conduct in Syria was even more alarming to Israelis. The way most saw it, in the Middle East an unfulfilled threat will be interpreted as weakness, and be exploited as such.
That exploitation of weakness came sooner rather than later, on two planes:
First, having understood America’s conduct as a licence to kill, Bashar Assad resumed his genocide in earnest, while exacerbating the refugee crisis that destabilised Europe and the entire international system.
And second, three months after having prevented an American attack on his Syrian proxy, Russian President Vladimir Putin dispatched his Defence and Foreign Ministers to Cairo, where they paved the way for a US$3.5 billion arms deal. Previously, Egypt had never purchased one Russian-made bullet since Anwar Sadat had abandoned Moscow’s orbit forty years earlier.
Then again, Obama’s Syrian and Egyptian legacies, while lamented in Jerusalem, did not directly affect Israel. That cannot be said of his Iranian legacy.
The deal Obama signed with Iran alarmed Israelis on both sides of its political divide, with one of the agreement’s main critics being Maj-Gen (res) Amos Yadlin, Labor’s former candidate for defence minister, and the IDF’s former head of Military Intelligence.
As he saw it, besides effectively preserving and endorsing Iran’s nuclear program, the deal gave the Ayatollahs something far more valuable to them – international legitimacy, and regional prominence.
Not only were the Mullahs not required to open up politically toward their opposition, or to retreat militarily from the many fronts where they are violently meddling across the Arab world, the Islamic Republic was effectively recognised as a pillar of a new Middle Eastern order that Obama seemed eager to forge.
This vision was seen as woefully misguided, and downright dangerous, not only by Israel – whose very right to exist the Iranian regime denies – but also by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, which suspect that the Shi’ite Persians are out to dominate the Sunni Arabs.
Finally, on the Palestinian front, Obama’s ongoing demands that Israel cease all building in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem and his occasional admonitions that Israel make overtures to the Palestinian Authority, were a constant irritant for Netanyahu.
As the Obama years drew to a close, Netanyahu braced – like the rest of the world – for a Clinton presidency, and consequently for this legacy to largely continue. Yet events took a different course, one from which Israel may stand to benefit.
Trump’s presidency will likely begin with a domestic emphasis.
The President-elect’s many promises concerning foreign policy, from building a border fence to abolishing trade pacts, will be difficult to deliver quickly, if at all, and Trump’s own Republican Party may yet persuade him to shelve them. Conversely, the infrastructure projects he mentioned in his acceptance speech – the only policy aim to which he alluded since his election, as of this writing – are both consensual and urgent, and as such would help launch a presidency that millions of Americans find difficult to accept.
A domestically-focused presidency would relegate foreign affairs generally to the back burner, but even more so the Middle East conflict. That is in terms of priorities. In terms of substance, Trump’s attitude is almost the inverse of Obama’s, as the new president brings to this arena more emotion and less pretension.
Trump has no Cairo Speech up his sleeve. He has no aim, much less a plan, to pacify, liberate, or even humanise the war-torn Middle East. Instead, the Mideast appears to be for him the wellspring of the Islamist terror he abhors even more than most Americans – as a builder of the Manhattan skyline that was so infamously marred by Islamism in 2001.
On this front, Trump will almost certainly part with the outgoing administration’s refusal to publicly identify Islamist ideology as the enemy. This attitude will place on the defensive Israel’s three major enemies, namely: the Sunni Hamas in Gaza, the Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Ayatollahs of Teheran.
Trump’s stated intention to cancel or renegotiate the deal with Iran will be difficult to deliver and few expect such an annulment to materialise in the short term. The current assessment in Jerusalem is that at most Trump will try to reopen some of the deal’s clauses. Yet even if he keeps the deal untouched, he will likely delegitimise the Mullahs’ rule, openly disparage its ways, and actively help the regime’s opposition.
A big riddle will be Trump’s treatment of Russia in general, and its Middle Eastern interventions in particular. His stated aim to cooperate with Moscow in defeating ISIS is seen in Israel as a practical course, but few understand how such cooperation will sit with Russia’s role in the Syrian regime’s ongoing massacre of its own people.
Similarly, no one knows what Trump makes of Russia’s renewed penetration into Egypt. He might let that be, but he might also seek Egypt’s restoration to America’s fold, and the revival of its role as the West’s Middle Eastern pivot, perhaps by helping the el-Sisi Government out of the economic crisis with which is currently struggling.
The Palestinian situation will likely be, from Trump’s viewpoint, on the margins of these much bigger issues. Still, on Netanyahu’s right flank Trump’s upset win has kindled hopes for a reinvention of the American attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“Trump’s victory is a great opportunity to immediately announce a retreat from the idea of establishing Palestine at the heart of the land [of Israel], which would be a direct blow to our security and justice,” said Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the nationalist-religious Bayit Yehudi faction. “This is the president-elect’s philosophy as it appears in his platform, and that should be our path,” he added, and concluded: “The Palestinian-state era is over.”
While that statement clearly conveys the extreme Israeli Right’s wishes, its validity as a prediction remains to be seen.
For now, the Israeli Right prefers to take Trump’s unreservedly pro-Israeli statements at face value. They thus expect him to start by delivering on his vow to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move Washington had been reserving until the aftermath of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
The timing and nature of Trump’s moves concerning Israel will depend to some extent on the appointments he makes.
West Bank settlers derive particular inspiration from the fact that one of Trump’s senior advisers, David Friedman, is a veteran and public supporter of their cause. Rumours that Friedman will be Trump’s special Middle East envoy underscored reports that trenchantly pro-Israel former Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, is one leading contender for secretary of state, and that candidates for other key cabinet positions will go to other supporters of the Israeli Right, like Rudy Giuliani or Newt Gingrich.
Such appointments will surely make Netanyahu and his aides feel they are among friends when dealing with the new administration. However, policy may well end up shaped by stubborn realities and sudden events that will prove stronger than any individual in the Trump operation, including Trump himself.
The best walking testimony of the power of these external dynamics is Trump’s predecessor.
The same Obama who delivered the Cairo Speech ended up delivering to Israel the most generous military aid deal it has ever received. That happened because, as the years elapsed, the man who had originally set out to appease the Muslim world was staring at a disintegrating Middle East, where Israel’s stability and loyalty to Uncle Sam proved to be the only anchor on which Washington could durably rely.