U.S. President Donald Trump comes from a business world of profit and loss. He practices a presidential style which sees the world in terms of good and evil, black and white. As far as the Middle East is concerned, Trump wants economic partnerships that will provide profit for the American market, not terrorism, Sunni or Shiite. He speaks much less, if at all, about how deep the rift is between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority, and as of now has still not presented an official plan for resolving the conflict.
Trump represents an antithesis to the neoliberal approach of his predecessor, Barack Obama. In his famous speech in Cairo in 2009, Obama tried to encourage a new, reformist regional order, which would contend with radicalism but also promote values such as human rights, democracy, women’s rights and freedom of religion. Trump disregards these values, which are difficult to quantify and measure. We should also not be fooled into thinking Trump is conservative in the mold of George W. Bush, who embarked on a worldwide crusade against radical global terrorism. This crusade embroiled the U.S. in several regional wars, during which the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq and undertook costly intervention in Afghanistan, all the while increasing the national debt. Trump was elected on the basis of “America first.”
Through this prism we must view his multi-legged trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel as an effort to forge a new regional alliance, geared toward serving two primary objectives — fighting terrorism in the region and economic partnership. Trump, along with his senior advisers, is not afraid to point at the clear “axis of evil” comprising Iran, ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas. It does not matter that Iran is fighting ISIS. For Trump, anyone who joins and helps these groups is part of the axis hostile to U.S. interests.
To counter this evil axis, Trump and his advisers formulated a simple plan. They would push for a regional alliance between “moderate” Sunni states and Israel. These are America’s legs to stand on in the region, legs that were damaged by Obama’s policies.
In Saudi Arabia, Trump struck massive deals that should help the sputtering American economy. He received a commitment from regional leaders to cooperate with him, and to even normalize relations with Israel. In return, these Arab leaders requested a U.S. commitment to fighting the evil axis, for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to be resuscitated, and that the U.S. would refrain from seeking to change the way their regimes rule their countries.
America’s second leg in the region, as stated, is Israel. The foundations of this alliance lay in shared values and a proven track record of cooperation. Trump sees the Jewish people as an historical victim and Israelis as victims of terror. He is committed to their protection in several regards: creating a diplomatic umbrella in the international arena, continuing to supply offensive weapons in the form of the F-35 fighter jet, and funding Israel’s multilayered missile defense system. However, he does not derive from this that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of Israel and that the U.S. embassy should be moved there. Trump will not accept Israel annexing portions of the West Bank or accelerating construction in existing settlements. On the other hand, the Palestinians were slapped with a clear message: “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded and even rewarded.” For Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the reward for joining the “axis of good” is boosting him as a potential partner in the economic and military alliance against terror and in negotiations with Israel.
Similar to a successful salesman, Trump is ignoring most of the controversial sticking points while trying to persuade the sides that everyone is ripe for an alliance and peace process. Similar to anyone with experience in dealing with businessmen, we must ask if the Trump behind closed doors and the Trump making public declarations is the same person. Only Trump can answer this question, and because he has already shown a knack for surprising many of the best political experts, it is at least important to keep in mind the dichotomous worldview driving him.
Dr. Chen Kertcher is a lecturer in Middle Eastern studies and political science at Ariel University.