The shock of Donald Trump’s election in America has not yet subsided, and already emotions and expectations run high all over the Middle East.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was one of the first leaders to call Trump and congratulate him. In Israel, too, there were jubilations, especially from the Likud and other right-wing parties. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the most prominent representative of the religious Right in the government, promptly declared that Israel is facing a historic opportunity to do away with the “two-state solution.”
Surely Trump will support unbridled settlement construction all over the West Bank.
Other political actors, however, were more cautious. The president-elect is not yet in the White House, and it is very difficult to know what he will do once there. Trump, after all, had voiced support for settlement construction, but also called for “US neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hoped to “close a deal” between the two sides.
So who is the real Donald Trump? An Islamophobic crusader and a natural ally to the hawks who dream of annexing the West Bank to Israel, or a pragmatic businessman who wants to “close a deal”? In fact, neither is true.
Donald Trump is a post-modern politician, for whom ideological positions mean little.
True, there are several core issues of special interest to him and his supporters.
Some of them are symbolic, emotional or identity-related: defying the “Washington experts” and the culture of political correctness, for example.
As Trump proved repeatedly during his campaign, such messages could be conveyed even when you contradict yourself ceaselessly. It is enough to be rude, direct and “authentic.” In other issues, Trump has also shown some consistency, as in his opposition to illegal immigration.
Excluding his sympathy for Vladimir Putin and other dictators, Trump does not have solid views on foreign policy, and certainly not on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. This is the only way to understand a politician who hopes to “close a deal” between Israel and the Palestinians on Monday, and then advocates unbridled settlement construction on Tuesday, only to repeat these contradicting views time and again. All Israeli actors – Left and Right as well as Palestinian and Arab factions – look in vain for ideological consistency. This is a futile search. Instead, an in-depth analysis of Trump’s behavior throughout his career might give us some clues on his future Middle Eastern policy.
One such clue is Trump’s constant quest for glory, preferably quick and cheap. Take a look at the ostentatious buildings he purchased or constructed, and the huge “Trump” signs on their fronts, often in golden letters. A particularly blatant example is the historical DC Post Office, a few blocks from the White House, recently purchased and converted to a Trump Hotel. As a cynical American colleague told me once, Trump could be quite competent as far as infrastructure is concerned. Just tell him that on every new road, railroad, bridge or interchange we’ll add a gargantuan “Trump” sign, and that will do the trick.
It is reasonable to assume that a similar mentality will guide the new president in his foreign policy. As he said, he will probably avoid costly, long and thankless projects of “nation building.”
Such projects, almost always accompanied by counterinsurgency, suck American blood and money, have no end in sight, and bring only disgrace to generals and presidents. In the same vein, Trump will probably avoid foreign policy moves demanding large investments with no apparent yields.
His administration will probably lack a long-term strategy for the Middle East, but will be happy to pick low-hanging fruit and cut lucrative deals when opportunity arises.
Therefore, the sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the Israeli government, the settlers, the Left and the Palestinians – cannot plan according to a known trajectory. Nor can they assume that the new administration will necessarily take their side.
The DC foreign policy establishment, including moderate Republicans, will try to keep things more or less as they are. Trump and his closest advisers, however, are likely to be on the lookout for deals, dramatic headlines and opportunities for instant glory.
If the establishment proves unable to restrain the president, all sides to the conflict will have to live with permanent uncertainty. In periods of inactivity on the Israeli-Palestinian front, the administration may show indifference, only to change its stance immediately and unexpectedly in face of a golden opportunity or an impending crisis. In such a case, Trump may bully his way into the conflict and pressure the sides without taking no for an answer.
Actors who want to use this new reality to their advantage have to forge excellent personal relations with Trump and his advisers (and here Israel has a natural advantage). Most of all, they have to learn how to initiate controlled but dramatic crises in order to draw the White House’s attention, giving Trump an opportunity to “save the situation.”
Small but noisy clashes that capture world media headlines, especially in Jerusalem, may do the trick. Dramatic peace initiatives allowing Trump to think that he can “close a deal” may also serve as game changers.
Obviously, the Middle East is only one example. With Trump at the helm, the international community is moving into an age of uncertainty. Those able to ride the new waves and adapt to this brave new world may thrive.
Those who fail will pay the price. The writer is a military historian from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the author of The Plots against Hitler (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).