Trump and the Middle East: How he beat nature and how nature beat him

Iran has continued to fund terrorists across the region, the EU has created a mechanism to bypass the US sanctions, and China continues to buy Iranian oil – until February 2020.

US President Donald Trump enters a press conference earlier this week.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump enters a press conference earlier this week.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Throughout US President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he has made many promises related to foreign policy, or ones that are closely linked to US bilateral relations with foreign countries: renegotiating NAFTA, reversing president Barack Obama’s Cuba policy, building a wall on the US-Mexico border, and more.
In particular, Trump has focused on the Middle East, trying to solve many disputes and problems in the region by adopting a different approach than his predecessor. He promised to renegotiate the Iran deal, defeat Islamic State within 30 days, move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and introduce a peace plan between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Since taking office, Trump has made sure to leave his mark in the Middle East. The US left the JCPOA agreement, posed sanctions on Iran, moved the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel, (partially) withdrew from the Kurdish area in Syria, assassinated Iran Guards’ chief Qasem Soleimani, and rolled out the “Deal of the Century,” just to mention a few. These moves have already left their mark – in many cases they led to an immediate result and in others they were one step in a long process.
There are two processes currently developing in the Middle East that I would like to address. In one of them, Trump has done something that seemed unnatural in the past, and in the other, nature has done what Trump couldn’t do.
The challenge of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been an ongoing struggle for 20-plus years. Trump knows that an agreement between both sides cannot be reached with the snap of his fingers. He realizes there are many steps that need to be taken before inking a deal. First and foremost, both sides need to agree to abandon some of their claims in return for peace. With only a couple of weeks passed since the introduction of the peace plan, the agreement has not led to any result on the ground yet, but it has caused an interesting development.
When the terrorist attacks first broke out following the Oslo Accords, the Israeli official position was that there is no partner for peace. The Right also claimed that Oslo has led to the series of terrorist attacks and therefore Israel should not give any land to the Palestinians. Their position has not changed that drastically since. The Right later used Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip as an example; since leaving Gaza in 2005, Israel has been hit by more than 15,400 rockets, missiles and mortars from the Gaza Strip; an average of 92 each month since 2005, compared to an average of 55 per month before the disengagement. Israel has seen a 67% increase in attacks from Gaza since handing it over to the Palestinians.
It is for this reason that the people on the Right have been hesitant toward any further concessions with the Palestinian Authority. When Trump rolled out his Peace to Prosperity plan, which includes Israel giving up land to a future Palestinian state, parts of the Right, for the first time that I can remember, have embraced the plan completely. They obviously prized the annexation of 30% of the West Bank, but many right-wing influencers have been in favor of handing a Palestinian state the other 70% too.
In an open letter, seven mayors of cities in the West Bank called to support the plan. Not all of the people on the Right were in favor. Many Israeli politicians are still against the establishment of a Palestinian state or handing over any land, but do adopt the part that allows Israeli annexation. Having mayors of cities in the West Bank calling to support a plan that would bestow statehood on the Palestinians and give them land is something that just four years ago seemed unnatural and highly unlikely.
Trump has gained the trust of many people on the Right by relocating the embassy, recognizing the Golan Heights and acknowledging that the settlements are not illegal under international law. Although people on the Right have refused to hand over land in the past, they trust that the president’s plan has Israel’s best interests in mind and is the best deal they will get. That is why they are able to come out and support all elements of the agreement, including creating a Palestinian state, despite having advocated against it for years. 1-0 for Trump over nature.
ANOTHER PROCESS Trump is working on in the Middle East is getting Iran back to the negotiating table. By leaving the JCPOA and imposing sanctions, the president has hoped to isolate Iran from other countries, stop the funding of Iranian proxies in neighboring countries, and force them to negotiate a new deal that would provide stability and safety in the Middle East. So far the president has not seen much success on this front.
Iran has continued to fund terrorists across the region, the EU has created a mechanism to bypass the US sanctions, and China continues to buy Iranian oil – until February 2020 when nature stepped in. That which Trump couldn’t do in his three years in office, the novel coronavirus accomplished in a matter of days. Since discovering the first case in the Iranian city Qom on February 19, Iran has seen the highest death toll outside of China.
As a result, a number of surrounding countries have closed their borders with Iran and stopped all flights to and from the country. These countries include Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These health measures hit Iran’s export of terrorism in the region, as it prevents the free movement of their “consultants” and ammunition outside the Middle East. I am sure Trump is happy with the results but would much rather see these result through economic pressure and not through a widespread virus. 1-1 – nature has made a comeback.
The writer is the former international adviser to Energy Minister and security cabinet member Yuval Steinitz. He currently serves as director of the Project for Israel’s National Security for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).