As US Vice President Mike Pence arrives in the Middle East, he has a tough needle to thread. Israeli support for the Trump administration is soaring. The Arab street is furious.
Can he deliver a convincing message that the US truly wants to be a regional peace-maker? And having delivered more than most Israelis expected in the first year, is the vice president authorized to announce specific policies to strengthen America’s critically important alliances with Egypt and Jordan, even as the Palestinians refuse to see him? It’s worth zooming out for a moment to put Pence’s trip in context. The Trump-Pence administration came into office a year ago with four specific strategic objectives in the region.
The first was to crush Islamic State (ISIS), dismantle the genocidal grip of the “caliphate” that controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and prevent ISIS foreign fighters from being able to attack and kill Americans.
Regarding this, Pence has a great story to tell. The administration has succeeded far beyond their critics’ wildest expectations. From his first days in office, President Trump ordered the Pentagon to remove the handcuffs president Barack Obama had placed on US generals and special forces operators and work closely with America’s Arab and Kurdish allies on the ground. By year’s end, Iraq had been fully liberated from the ISIS threat and Syria nearly so (though Syria remains a hornet’s nest for other reasons).
The administration’s second objective in the region was to dramatically reorient America’s policy toward Iran. The Obama team foolishly believed Tehran could be a force for regional stability.
The Trump team knows Iran is a terrorist state, led by murderous band of apocalyptic Islamists, hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles and exporting their jihadist revolution around the globe.
Changing course, however, remains a work in progress.
“Despite my strong inclination, I have not yet withdrawn the United States from the Iran nuclear deal,” President Trump said on January 12. “Instead, I have outlined two possible paths forward: either fix the deal’s disastrous flaws, or the United States will withdraw.”
“This is a last chance,” he added, putting Congress and Europe on notice they need to quickly draft a more effective agreement. “In the absence of such an agreement, the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. And if at any time I judge that such an agreement is not within reach, I will withdraw from the deal immediately.”
The administration’s third objective was to rebuild the US-Israeli alliance, badly damaged during the Obama years.
In this it has far surpassed expectations.
• In February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of the first world leaders to meet with President Trump at the White House.
• In May, Trump’s first official trip abroad included a much-heralded visit to the Jewish state. He became the first American president to pray at the Western Wall. He visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, laid a wreath at Yad Vashem and met extensively with Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, while also making time to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
• In September, Trump and Netanyahu met again, this time at the opening session of the UN General Assembly in Manhattan.
• Throughout the year, Ambassador Nikki Haley vigorously defended Israel at the UN.
• In November, the US delivered the ninth state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets to Israel. Fifty more are being built.
• In December, President Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and announced he will relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Polls show Israeli support for Trump has skyrocketed. In May, 56% said he is “pro-Israel.”
Today, that number is 76%.
Which brings us to the administration’s fourth objective: rebuilding America’s alliances with the Arab world, also damaged during the Obama years.
This initiative started off quite well, despite Trump’s incendiary “Muslim ban” pledge during the campaign.
• In February, Jordan’s King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to meet with the president in Washington.
• Over the next few months, Trump held positive meetings with one Arab leader after another, including warmly welcoming Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi to the White House for his first state visit.
• In May, the president made Saudi Arabia the first stop of his first foreign trip. He addressed 50 Arab and Muslim leaders, offering them strong support against common threats such as Iran, ISIS and radical Islamist terrorist groups, and vowing to help Palestinians and Israelis make peace.
A year later, however, this strategy is foundering. The president’s Jerusalem decision – how it was made, why it was made and when it was announced – has infuriated the Palestinians, who have cut off relations with the White House. It has also seriously complicated US relations with Jordan (a country whose population is about 70% Palestinian), and much of the Sunni Arab world.
Trump’s nuances – that the boundaries of the Holy City still need to be negotiated, thus keeping the door open to a possible Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem; and saying the status quo of the holy sites must be protected – either weren’t heard or weren’t believed. As one senior Arab official told me, “Very few people in our part of the world watched President Trump’s full speech. Fewer still read it. All they heard was the headline, ‘Trump gives Jerusalem to the Jews.’” Palestinian leaders should be using the moment to re-engage in peace talks, not continue to boycott them. Their people urgently need a final resolution to this painful conflict.
Until that happens, the vice president should focus on bolstering relations with Egypt and Jordan, two faithful and vitally important allies. It would be helpful to announce in Cairo that the US is restoring the military and economic aid previously put on pause, and selling Egypt drones and other equipment to better protect its borders from terrorist infiltrators.
In Amman, the vice president should announce the US has concluded a new multi-year Memorandum of Understanding, providing the Hashemite Kingdom with at least $1.5 billion a year in military and economic assistance, including humanitarian aid to help Jordan care for the 1.3 million Syrian refugees it is compassionately housing, feeding, educating and providing medical care for.
It is also past time for President Trump to appoint qualified and trusted US ambassadors to Egypt and Jordan.
The vice president has an unenviable task. One trip can’t fix everything. But taking a victory lap before the Knesset and coming empty-handed to Amman and Cairo would seriously set back US interests in the region.The author is a dual US-Israeli citizen and a
New York Times best-selling author of novels and non-fiction books about the Middle East, with nearly five million copies in print.