Does Trump Want Peace in the Middle East?

Some analysts aren't so certain.
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President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation signed December 6th, 2017, saying the U.S. government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

President Donald Trump holds up a proclamation signed December 6th, 2017, saying the U.S. government will formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Following his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital last week, analysts say it's unclear whether President Donald Trump is trying to spark conflagrations in the Middle East to legitimize domestic and foreign anti-Arab and Muslim policy.

"Maybe he would like violence to erupt in the Middle East because he thinks in terms of culture wars; he would like to see his world vision vindicated. And his world vision would be vindicated if Arabs appear to be irrational and violent, if Mexicans appear to be rapists, etcetera," says Karim Emile Bitar, director of research at the Paris-based world affairs think tank Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques.

"We have a child emperor playing with matches. And the consequences could be devastating indeed," Bitar adds.

The Department of State seemed to underline that the announcement reflected a decision from the White House, and that the department was working to maintain American interests abroad.

"We have listened carefully to the views of our allies and partners, including Israel and the Palestinians. But this is ultimately a decision for the president of the United States to make and it is emblematic of his commitment to Israel and to the U.S.-Israel relationship," Noel Clay, a spokesperson with the Department of State, tells Pacific Standard. "We expect to continue working closely with partners across the region toward our shared goals, including the achievement of a comprehensive and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians."

The European Union—together with other international leaders—split with Trump's decision on Jerusalem this week. It appears that, after Washington's move inflamed global tensions, with rallies from Rabat to Jakarta calling to safeguard Jerusalem, its counterparts abroad are scrambling to keep the peace.

It is the street demonstrations that may inspire global unrest, some say.

"To some extent, it is beyond the control of world leaders, and has more to do with the cycle of protest," says Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University whose work focuses on the conflict. "Most Western leaders will be trying to calm things. The Palestine Authority, although deeply dismayed by the U.S. decision, has no interest in protests getting out of hand. Nor does Jordan. However, some in the region—President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, for example, or Hamas, or Hizbullah—will be trying to build on popular anger, however."

Viewing Trump's Jerusalem announcement from abroad, Byrnen says it appeared to fit squarely with Trump's foreign policy track record. "Generally the Trump administration is viewed around the world as erratic and dysfunctional, prone to careless and ill-considered rhetoric. The president's statement on Jerusalem only further confirms that view," Brynen adds.

Other analysts agreed, adding that in Trump's tradition of granting his base policy gifts, he appears to have delivered to both Christian evangelists in the U.S. whose votes he hopes to secure for next year's mid-term elections and Israel's right-wing Netanyahu administration.

"Recent history demonstrates that stoking global conflict is a staple of the Trump administration's foreign policy, if they have one at all," says Emran El-Badawi, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Houston. "Within his first 10 months in office Trump has deliberately challenged North Korean president Kim Jong-un after that country's latest nuclear weapons test; he breached the Iran Nuclear Deal on behalf of the U.S., by refusing to re-certify it a second time and then declared that country's National Guard a terrorist group. ... One of the only countries in support of Trump's hawkish, and many would say racist, policies has been Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu."

Israeli diplomats in Washington could not immediately be reached for comment.

It remains hard to gauge what the next steps in the fallout over Washington's decision will be. Bitar says that a Third Intifada—the next major uprising of Palestinians in defense of the land and rights—is unlikely in the short-term, because "there is a lot of anger, but there is also a sense of disempowerment."

Palestinian diplomats in Washington directed Pacific Standard to an MSNBC interview where they pledged that their people would "stand tall" in defense of their rights.

For the same reasons one might count on Palestinians not rising against the decision anytime soon—their disenfranchisement from any political space—one should fear regional conflict; Trump has effectively undermined any avenue for political dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli authorities, at least one brokered by the U.S. If the world avoids a wide-reaching fallout, it will have to negotiate it without Washington, effectively ending an era of U.S. dominance in foreign affairs.

The administration appears to have ushered in a point of no return.

"For negotiations to resume under U.S. mediation, the Trump administration will have to issue a major corrective," says Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst on Israel/Palestine at International Crisis Group, a think tank that studies international conflict resolution and prevention. "A U.S. reversal of the recognition, as the [Palestine Liberation Organization] demands, is unlikely, not least given the electoral advantage the move has for President Trump with evangelical voters in advance of the mid-term elections in 2018. Without such a reversal, the PLO would need something on the scale of U.S. recognition of Palestine."

Other possible reversals of last week's announcement seem just as unlikely.

"The U.S. must stop blocking the U.N. Security Council from enforcing its resolutions regarding Israel ending its occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and ending its colonization of occupied territories through illegal settlements," says Stephen Zunes, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of San Francisco.

But calm may not, in fact, be the objective. Many analysts agree with Bitar's assessment that the Trump administration is not working in the interest of inspiring global calm, even after having roundly criticized predecessor George W. Bush during his campaign for entrenching the U.S. in costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Both Trump and Netanyahu have repeatedly spoken the language of war when it comes to the Middle East, especially against Iran and, more recently, against the Palestinian right to their own land. In contrast, for example, former U.S. President Barack Obama took a measured approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, erring on the side of inaction rather than war," Badawi says.

And, despite Trump's penchant for breaking with precedent, that hawkish tone is an extension of previous administrations' Palestine policy.

"The Trump administration's decision on Jerusalem is the culmination of U.S. foreign policy toward the Palestinians over the past seven decades," says Osamah Khalil, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Syracuse University. "Although the U.S. and Israel claim they favor a peaceful settlement and the eventual creation of a Palestinian state through negotiations, their actions ensure that it will not be achieved."

If Trump's announcement appeared to advance a potential doomsday scenario in the Middle East, that may be because some in his base clamor for said scenario, Badawi says, citing an article from Israeli newspaper Haaretz exploring how the move was anticipated by Christian evangelical Trump supporters in the U.S. hoping it would usher in Armageddon.

If the decision on Jerusalem were motivated by Christian evangelism that would be "quite interesting," Bitar notes, "because it is often the Arab World and the Islamic World that is portrayed as being driven by religious superstitions, and here we have a perfect example of a major foreign policy decision being taken by the U.S. president not on the basis of any rational argument, without any clear endgame, but basically to please these evangelicals who are often hardcore, hardliners, hawkish supporters of Israel, but who are also often anti-Semitic."

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