Mr. Trump goes to the Middle East

May 19, 2017

Mr. Trump goes to the Middle East

Update from AIJAC

Update 05/17 #04

With US President Donald Trump leaving today for Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his Middle East trip before visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories on March 22 and 23, this Update is devoted to informed advice about how the US Administration can make the most out of the visit.

We lead with Washington Institute for Near East Policy head Dr. Robert Satloff, who says the visit should be seen largely as an attempt to signal that US now has a different approach to that offered by the Obama Administration, which was unpopular in the region. He says Trump will need to symbolically end the perception that the US was distancing itself both from allied Arab governments like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and from its close partnership with Israel. However, Satloff urges him to go farther and begin to create a new regional partnership to counter both Sunni and Shi’ite Islamist extremism and to ensure stability in Iraq and Syria, and to look for new ways to advance hopes to re-launch productive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. For his complete and very insightful analysis of what the US should be trying to accomplish region-wide during this visit, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, who focuses specifically on Trump’s self-declared plans to seek an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and what the visit could include to foster those plans. Horovitz argues that key barrier to efforts to make peace up until now has been that, unlike Israel, there is no conviction on the Palestinian side that time is working against them. He argues the key to changing this is taking Abbas at his word during his meeting with Trump earlier in the month when he said, falsely, Palestinians give their children a “culture of peace”, pushing the Palestinians to actually live up to Abbas’ words. Horovitz offers a number of suggestions on how such change can be encouraged. For this thoughtful reflection of a mainstream Israeli viewpoint on what Trump can do, CLICK HERE. For those who have not already seen it, AIJAC’s Shmuel Levin produced a more general survey of Israeli ideas about how Trump can advance peace earlier this week.

Finally, veteran Israeli columnist Evelyn Gordon discusses the implications of a Wall Street Journal report earlier this week that the Arab Gulf states are considering offering Israel a series of normalisation moves – including lifting trade restrictions, allowing telecommunications links and overflight rights, and allow visas to Israeli athletes and businessmen, in exchange for relatively mild concessions by Israel on Gaza and settlements. She says this signals a change many experts felt would never happen, a willingness to come to terms with Israel without a final peace deal with the Palestinians – as well as a realisation by the Arab states that such a deal is not achievable in the near future. She makes it clear that this shift is good news for both Israel and the region, which, by implication, Trump could use to his advantage if he does not fall into the trap of believing a two-state deal is achievable in the short term. For her full argument, CLICK HERE. Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal also discusses the “opportunity” being produced by the growing strategic alignment of Sunni Arab states with Israel, as well as the trouble the Trump Administration will likely have in seizing that opportunity.

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Article 1

Trump can set big things in motion on his Mideast trip


It’s an opportunity to begin to correct our flawed foreign policy

BY Robert Satloff

Trump has a big agenda for his mideast trip, but even with all the distractions and missteps on the domestic front, it’s doable

President Trump’s journey to Riyadh and Jerusalem, launching his first foreign trip, is designed to show both Middle Easterners and the wider world that the Barack Obama era in foreign policy is a thing of the past.

Obama, one should recall, also made the Middle East one of his earliest overseas stops. But his itinerary skipped Israel, setting an arm’s-length tone for relations with our closest regional ally that was a consistent theme of his administration. (Israel contributed its share to this process, too.) And in Cairo, Obama decided to speak over the heads of the Egyptian leadership and, in his landmark “New Beginning” speech, addressed himself instead to the broader Muslim world, not even mentioning the hospitality and friendship of longtime ally Hosni Mubarak.

Trump will be to a large extent seeking to undue the legacy of President Obama in the Middle East, starting from his controversial trip to the region in 2009.

Trump, by contrast, is at ease talking mano-a-mano with other leaders — democratic or not — and the Saudis are obliging by arranging a massive gathering of Arab and Muslim potentates that ranges from the king of Morocco to the president of Indonesia.

If Obama wanted to speak to the billion-plus Muslims of the world, Trump will speak to their leaders, which is almost certainly his preference. And the photo of the President surrounded by so many Muslim leaders is likely to be Exhibit A when administration lawyers next go to court to refute charges that the temporary travel ban is based on anti-Muslim bigotry.

By visiting Israel on his first overseas trip, Trump is also sending a powerful message about the importance he attaches to partnership with Jerusalem. Of course, presidential tourism is not the only way to underscore a strategic commitment; Ronald Reagan, as firm a Zionist as ever served in the White House, had two terms in office but never visited Israel. But the balance is striking — a visit to the guardian of Islam’s holiest shrines, followed by an overnight stop in the world’s only Jewish state.

As important as these images may be, I hope the President does not limit himself to symbolism. In Saudi Arabia, Israel and his subsequent participation in a NATO summit in Brussels, the President has a rare opportunity to steer the U.S.-led coalition of stability-seeking nations in a direction that advances our common interests. Here are three specific suggestions:

First, the President should take advantage of his meeting with Muslim leaders in Riyadh to propose a new partnership to roll back the twin forms of Islamist extremism that threaten global peace and security — the Sunni jihadism of ISIS, Al Qaeda and like-minded sub-state actors, movements and groups and the Iranian-led consortium of radical states, militias and proxies.

Such a partnership — less than a full-fledged treaty but more than just a vague communiqué — would have many component parts, from military, political and diplomatic to economic, educational and cultural. It would extend both a promise of tolerance and protection to Christians in Muslim lands as well as a full-throated offer of acceptance and cooperation to Israel. And it would formally signal the end of Obama’s misguided effort to accommodate Iranian strategic ambitions at the expense of America’s traditional partners in the broader Middle East.

Second, the President should link his Riyadh and Brussels meetings to secure promises from his Arab hosts and his NATO partners for a coordinated, all-hands-on-deck effort to ensure stability, security and reasonably effective governance in the lands soon to be liberated from ISIS domination in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

From heinous terrorism to massive refugee flows, countries around the world suffered grievously when ISIS rose from the ashes of an earlier generation of Sunni jihadists that was defeated in Iraq but not extinguished; they all have a stake in preventing that from happening again. We will soon get another chance to do this right but it will only happen if Washington takes the lead in orchestrating practical commitments of financial, human and other forms of support.

And third, the President should use his considerable political leverage to advance a secure peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Ironically, the easiest part of this would be to re-launch direct negotiations, which the two sides managed to hold for only two weeks during the eight years of the Obama administration. Both Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu want the political relevance and diplomatic approval that come with engaging in peace talks and are likely to silence domestic critics in order to achieve those gains.

But to make real progress, Trump needs to augment his unique his “art of the deal” expertise in three ways.

He should work to bring in the process powerful regional actors, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, so they can sharpen the choices and opportunities facing the parties.

With Palestinians, he should pick up a theme George W. Bush championed 15 years ago as a requirement of U.S. partnership and then dropped in the tumult of the Gulf War — an insistence on internal reform, on everything from fighting corruption to stamping out incitement to ending the odious practice of paying terrorists and their families.
And to underscore the path of hard decisions that await real peacemakers, Trump should also firm up understandings on settlement activity with Israel, so there is a visible commitment to limit construction to land inside the security barrier, not deep in the heart of what is likely to be Palestinian-ruled territory.

Countering jihadism. Pushing back on Iran. Preventing ISIS’ resurrection after its coming defeat in Iraq and Syria. Injecting real content into a renewed push for Mideast peace. Securing Israel’s rightful place in the region. That is a big agenda. You could even call it “huge.” And even with all the distractions and missteps on the domestic front, it’s doable, too.

Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


Article 2

President Trump, you can start making peace. Here’s how


Op-ed: Demand an end to incitement, an end to the glorification of terrorism, the creation of a ‘culture of peace,’ and you might, just might, get somewhere. I’m one of the doubters you spoke about, but I’d love you to prove me wrong

By David Horovitz

Times of Israel, May 15, 2017

Two weeks ago, Mr. President, standing next to you at the White House, your guest Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, declared before you and the watching world, “I affirm to you that we are raising our youth, our children, our grandchildren on a culture of peace.”

US President Donald Trump meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office of the White House on May 3, 2017 in Washington, DC, (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN) where Abbas controversially claimed the Palestinians are raising their children on a culture of peace.

You would have been well within your rights, Mr. President, to stop Abbas, right there and then, and ask him: “Really? How do you square that solemn assertion with a Palestinian educational system that demonizes Israel, denies its existence, and encourages ‘martyrdom’ in the cause of the liberation of Palestine?” You could have said, “Now just hold on a second. You’re not exactly creating ‘a culture of peace,’ are you, when you name streets and town squares in honor of terrorists who kill innocent Israelis, and provide stipends to jailed terrorists and to the families of terrorists.”


Many in Israel would have applauded you for doing that, for exposing the duplicity that has invariably characterized the Palestinian leadership’s international rhetoric. But many in Israel also recognized that to publicly upbraid the sanctimonious Palestinian president would hardly have contributed to the interest you have vowed to advance — the Israeli interest, and the interest of those Palestinians who seek a better future: making peace.

Instead, you let Abbas’s false assertion stand, and, graciously and optimistically, you responded that you’d been speaking with many of the “great” leaders and representatives of both sides, that you were going to “start a process which hopefully will lead to peace,” and that you were determined to prove wrong those many doubters who think an accord is impossible.

And now you’re coming to Israel, and to the Palestinian territories, to work toward what you said you’ve always been told is “the toughest deal.”

How can you disprove the doubters? How can you mediate a process that might eventually yield an agreement? Well, Mr. President, it begins with holding Abbas to his word, holding him to that claim he set out for you in the Roosevelt Room on May 3.

For almost 25 years, since Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, successive US administrations tried to strong-arm the two sides into a deal, shuttling back and forth, seeking to exert pressure, setting timelines. Inevitably failing.

At the root of their failures was an asymmetry: The consensus in Israel — not wall-to-wall, but still a fairly wide consensus, I believe — is that our interest lies in disentangling ourselves from the Palestinians. We insist on preserving our revived Israel as a Jewish state, with a large Jewish majority; we insist on maintaining our democracy; and while we claim a historic right to the biblical Judea and Samaria, we would compromise on that resonant territory if anyone could help us achieve a credible and dependable agreement that would spare us sending our sons and daughters to risk their lives in endless wars for our country’s survival. Such an agreement, by definition, could only be credible and dependable if it were forged in a very different climate from the one that prevails today — if it were rooted, that is, in a fundamental change of attitude among the Palestinians, the leadership and the people.

But there has been no parallel sense of imperative on the Palestinian side, no conviction that time is working against them. Quite the opposite. Over the decades, the international community fed the Palestinians’ belief that if they hang tough enough for long enough, they will gain their independence, on their terms, without having to compromise with Israel on the modalities of their state to ensure it cannot threaten ours. Perceived as the underdog, helpless before mighty Israel, the Palestinians gained sympathetic media coverage even in the midst of their Second Intifada’s strategic onslaught of suicide bombings against us. The UN endlessly upgraded their status — all the way to observer state, just like the Vatican, with their flag flying high alongside those of all other nations at UN headquarters on the East River in New York.

Coming into office pledging a no-nonsense commitment to Israel and a determination to tackle international bias against Israel, notably at the UN, you are uniquely placed to convey to the Palestinians that, no, the independence to which they aspire is not going to be attained unilaterally. That the world is not going to hand them statehood on a platter. That the route to self-determination involves their genuine recognition of Israel — and that genuine recognition starts with education.

Which brings us back to that solemn affirmation Abbas issued to you on May 3, that pledge about raising the next generations in a “culture of peace.”

Your presidential predecessors did pay some attention to the goal of creating a climate of moderation and reconciliation. But, unwisely, they didn’t make it central to their efforts. About a decade ago, during one of the many previous unsuccessful attempts at peacemaking, a document was drawn up by the two sides setting out the elements of “civil society and the culture of peace,” replete with clauses outlawing racism and discrimination, pledging an end to incitement, promoting mutual understanding, tolerance and respect.

If you, Mr. President, bring the need for the creation of a “culture of peace” to the heart of your deal-making efforts, you might, I stress just might, get somewhere. A “culture of peace” means a Palestinian education system that acknowledges that the Jewish people have sovereign history here, that of course there were Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, and that, however inconvenient, two peoples are fated to share this narrow strip of land between Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. It means that far from discouraging “normalization” with Israel and Israelis as is currently the case, a Palestinian political and religious leadership that wants statehood needs to promote constructive interaction with the people who live next door. It emphatically means an end to all those Fatah social media posts encouraging violence, an end to the glorification of terrorists and terrorism.

Most Israelis, I still believe, would respond with enthusiasm to genuine evidence of change on the Palestinian side, and would encourage their government to make its own contributions to the creation of a better environment, including a curtailing of political leaders’ incitement against Arabs (Israeli and Palestinian), and a halt to expansion of settlements in areas that Israel does not envisage retaining under the terms of a permanent accord. If the leadership of the day does not respond in kind, Israelis have proved — notably in 1999 — that they will oust a government they feel is missing opportunities for progress.

These first few months of your presidency have been tumultuous, but if there is one area where your administration has set off on the right foot it is as regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You’ve made plain your instinctive identification with Israel, your awareness of the threats it faces, and your determination to tackle its unfair treatment by much of the international community. But you’ve also intrigued, and certainly not alienated, the Palestinians.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s
peace envoy, back in march, during a visit in which Grrenblatt did not put a foot wrong with ether side.

Your envoy Jason Greenblatt, thrown in at the deepest of ends, did not put a foot wrong on his first trip here, convening imams and rabbis, visiting a refugee camp, tweeting from Jewish and Arab locations in Jerusalem. You’re taking a long, careful look at the incendiary issue of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. (Don’t get me wrong. Jerusalem is Israel’s historic capital and world embassies should be here. It must also live up to its name, as the city of peace. All of that is achievable, but only with great care and sensitivity.) You’ve not given the Netanyahu government carte blanche on settlements. And your imminent visit here, so unprecedentedly early in a presidency, and so appreciated by Israelis, is also a coup for the Palestinians.

On your visit, atop Masada, redolent with tragic history, you will doubtless want to stress that the Jewish nation must be able to defend itself from all threats, and that it deserves a peaceful future. In Bethlehem, invoking Jesus as prince of peace, you can remind Abbas of his pledge, of the foundational imperative to educate in a spirit of reconciliation.

And away from the cameras, you can tell the leaderships that you mean business, and that you expect progress. That you don’t intend to start formulating complex security plans and other legalistic paperwork that have no meaning in the current trust-free reality. That you don’t plan on twisting arms and setting timelines. But that you want to see the atmosphere changing. You want to see courageous leadership. No more incitement. No more glorification of terrorism. An effort, in the interests of both sides, to confound the cynics and the doubters. And the extremists.

“I think there’s a very, very good chance” to get a deal done, you said two weeks ago, with Abbas at your side. I’m not as optimistic as you are, Mr. President, and certainly not in the short term. I’m one of those doubters you spoke about. I fear that hatred for Israel, rejection of our history, and demonization of every aspect of our presence here is deeply embedded on the Palestinian side, and that many Israelis have lost hope in the face of intransigence and terrorism and are becoming increasingly intolerant.

But boy, would I love you to prove me wrong.


Article 3

Arab-Israeli Ties: Hostage No More?


The reality is changing faster than “expert” preconceptions

Evelyn Gordon

Commentary “Contentions”, May 17, 2017

On any other day, the Wall Street Journal’s report on Tuesday would have been a major bombshell. Instead, it was unjustly overshadowed by the news that Donald Trump had shared sensitive third-party intelligence (apparently provided by Israel) with Russia. Granted, the intelligence story reveals something important about the U.S. president. But the WSJ story revealed something important about long-term trends in the Middle East–and for once, it’s unabashedly good news. Major Arab states have grown tired of having their relationship with Israel held hostage to the Palestinian problem, and they’re actually seeking to do something about it.

The Journal reported that the Gulf States are discussing a proposal to normalize certain types of commercial relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians (the report is behind a paywall, but the Times of Israel helpfully provided a detailed account of what the WSJ article said). Two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have already told both America and Israel that they’re willing to adopt it, the Journal added. But the real bombshell–actually, several bombshells–lay in the proposal’s details: In exchange for Israel freezing settlement construction in “certain areas” of the West Bank and relaxing its blockade of Gaza, the Arabs would establish direct telecommunication links with Israel, let Israeli aircraft overfly their countries, lift certain trade restrictions and perhaps grant visas to Israeli athletes and businessmen.

All these details are significant even in the likely event that the proposal goes nowhere. First, they show that Arab leaders–unlike Trump–understand that Israeli-Palestinian peace is nowhere on the horizon. They didn’t merely say so to the Journal; it’s clear from the proposal itself. All it asks of Israel are gestures that would leave the status quo essentially unchanged, not concessions on any final-status issue. Granted, many of these same Arab leaders have told Trump that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be a high priority, but that merely proves the old truism that what Arab leaders say to their Western counterparts shouldn’t be taken at face value.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir (R) speaks with Jason Greenblatt, the US president’s assistant and special representative for international negotiations, during the Arab Summit in the  Sweimeh in March (AFP Photo/Khalil Mazraawi). The Arabs are signalling,that unlike the Trump Administration, that final Israeli-Palestinian peace is not currently achievable.

Second, and more importantly, Arab leaders are no longer willing to give the Palestinians (or Syria) a veto over their relations with Israel. The last time Arab states proposed normalization with Israel (in the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative of 2002), they conditioned it on Israel signing final-status agreements with both the Palestinians and Syria and withdrawing completely to the 1949 armistice lines (also known, wrongly, as the pre-1967 border). Even eight years ago, when President Barack Obama urged Arab states to make gestures toward Israel in exchange for an Israeli settlement freeze, they unanimously refused, saying steps toward normalization were impossible until an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal was signed. Now, they’re seriously discussing partial normalization even without a final-status deal.

Third, unlike the Palestinians, Arab states have abandoned the fantasy of an Israeli retreat to the 1949 armistice lines. Their decision to demand a settlement freeze only in “certain areas” of the West Bank clearly implies that they see no reason for a freeze in other areas. They would remain Israeli under any final-status deal. This, incidentally, is something the Obama Administration never grasped. It treated construction in major settlement blocs or Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as identical to construction in isolated outposts.

Fourth, after decades of spearheading boycotts of Israel, Arab states are now keen to do business with it. That’s clear from the fact that, aside from visas for athletes, all the Arab gestures under consideration are aimed at facilitating business. As a senior Arab official involved in discussions of the proposal told the Journal, “We no longer see Israel as an enemy, but a potential opportunity.”

In one sense, this is no surprise. In February, Bloomberg reported that Israeli high-tech firms were already doing booming business with the Gulf States via pass-through companies. What is surprising, however, is that then, just three months ago, the “experts” Bloomberg consulted were still insisting that open trade between Israel and the Gulf would be impossible without Israeli-Palestinian peace. Now, leading Arab countries are proposing open business ties without a peace deal.

Thus, even though the proposal doesn’t include formal diplomatic ties, it’s a huge step forward over any previous Arab offer.

Admittedly, it might well go nowhere at this stage. First, Saudi Arabia and the UAE won’t do it alone, and it’s not yet clear whether a critical mass of other Arab states will join them. Indeed, the WSJ report makes that less likely, since it will give opponents of normalization a chance to mobilize public opinion against the idea.

US President Donald Trump meets with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, May 15, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

Second, it’s not clear what the Arabs states will ultimately demand in exchange. By the time they finish negotiating among themselves, the proposal may be significantly worse, just as the Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002 was significantly worse than the initial Saudi proposal (for instance, the Arab League version included language which Arabs interpret as requiring Israel to absorb millions of Palestinian refugees).

Finally, even if this doesn’t happen, the demands as stated could be unacceptable to Israel, depending on how the Arabs interpret them. For instance, Israel has long been willing to take some steps to help Gaza, but it would not agree to end the blockade entirely, as that would enable Hamas to import masses of lethal weaponry. Similarly, while Israel could agree to freeze construction in isolated settlements, it couldn’t accept a public freeze on construction in Jerusalem, its capital, which Arabs consider part of the West Bank.

Nevertheless, the very fact that this proposal is being openly discussed shows that Arab-Israeli relations are thawing at a faster pace than anyone would have predicted a few years ago. The credit for that goes primarily to changing geopolitical circumstances, but secondarily to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has worked hard and successfully to expand Israel’s foreign relations precisely because he never accepted the “expert” consensus that this was impossible without progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Just last summer, Israeli pundits from across the political spectrum were united in asserting that normalization with the Arab states would require an Israeli-Palestinian deal. At the time, I termed this assertion “sheer folly,” given how fast things were already changing; today, it looks even more ridiculous. And that’s good news not just for Israel, but for the entire Middle East.


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