The confluence of the Israeli snap elections; the Arab, Muslim, and Gulf Cooperation Council summits in Mecca; and the upcoming “Bahrain Workshop” underscore the amateur nature of President Trump’s Middle East policy. The conundrum in which Washington finds itself illustrates the absence of any comprehensive thinking on the part of this administration toward Iran, the Arab world and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Whatever “Deal of the Century” that Jared Kushner plans to reveal at the Bahrain meeting at the end of June will be dead on arrival. Arab, Muslim and Palestinian leaders have already signaled their disapproval of the American approach.
Regional leaders are no longer sure of the Trump administration’s real stand on Iran. The Saudi and Emirati leaders, together with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have been clamoring for a war, presumably led by the Americans. According to recent statements, however, the administration is backtracking on the rush to war. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent press statement, “We are prepared to engage in a conversation with no pre-conditions.”
Netanyahu’s political future is the other wobbly pillar in Trump’s Middle East political edifice. Netanyahu’s failure to form a government and his legal troubles have weakened his position, throwing the whole process in doubt.
Miscalculating on Iran
President Trump’s policy toward Iran rests on three pillars: pulling out of the nuclear deal; imposing severe economic sanctions on Iran; and forming an Arab-Islamic-Israeli alliance against the “Persian menace.”
The Iranian regime has not caved in. Other signatories of the deal have opposed undermining the nuclear agreement and urged the Trump administration to settle America’s differences with Iran peacefully.
The Iranian people’s perceived threat of regime change by the United States has unified the Iranian people in defense of their national, sovereign Persian state.
Iranians who abhor the clerical regime are never sanguine about a foreign power declaring a war on their country in order to remove their regime by force. The Bush administration discovered in 2003 that Iraqis dislike for their brutal regime did not translate into their liking a foreign invader. Iran is not any different.
The Trump administration seems to be searching for another course of action that does not threaten regime change but involves negotiations without preconditions.
Miscalculating on Israel-Palestine
The Israeli prime minister boasted recently that Trump has been the most supportive U.S. president of the state of Israel. President Trump, despite the opposition of most regional experts and former diplomats and contrary to U.N. Security Council resolutions, declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and accepted the “legality” of Israel’s control of the Golan Heights.
The president has appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The envisioned plan – the so-called Deal of the Century – is reportedly grounded in economic aid to the Palestinians while dismissing their right to self-determination as a political community. Kushner erroneously perceives the road to peace with the Palestinians going through Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) of Abu Dhabi.
He is also convinced that the expected billions of dollars from the Gulf states would buy off the Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood through some sort of a quisling leadership that would remain subservient to Israel for decades to come. Neither he nor his Gulf partners will be able to kill the idea of Palestinian statehood in the Arab psyche.
This is not to say that the two-state paradigm is at all achievable. In fact, this paradigm has faded and is being replaced by one area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea comprising two peoples. Perhaps a Palestinian state is unachievable, but unless the Palestinians are involved in charting their future, Kushner’s deal will fail. No plan for Israel and the Palestinians cooked up in Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi under the guise of fighting Iran will work.
Recapturing America’s indispensable role in the Middle East must conceptualize groundbreaking negotiations with Iran and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the right of the two peoples to live together in peace, dignity and security. This effort can best be accomplished through international and regional collaboration. America cannot accomplish such a monumental task alone. Will Washington rise to the challenge or leave the region to others to fill the ensuing vacuum?
Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version of this article was published on LobeLog.