Middle Israel: Under new management

Trump’s urge to shed Obama’s Middle Eastern legacy can hardly be more explicit, but what his impact will be is no more predictable than his next tweet.

US President Donald Trump’s impulsive attitude – epitomized by his habitual use of Twitter – has so far shaped both his style and substance. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump’s impulsive attitude – epitomized by his habitual use of Twitter – has so far shaped both his style and substance.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Donald Trump lost no time humbling the optimists who thought power would temper his caprice.
Hardly a month after assuming office the American president has already picked fights with the judiciary, the media, the president of Mexico, the prime minister of Australia, and the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
In between these skirmishes, Trump has shot from the hip a slew of executive orders, the most important of which, an admission ban on citizens from several Muslim-majority countries, crashed at takeoff when a succession of federal courts ruled it unconstitutional.
This is the setting in which Trump hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in what emerges as a clear end of one era and the blurry beginning of another.
As this column predicted, Trump’s career as an entrepreneur has made him arrive in office eager to do. Unfortunately, he has displayed little willingness to learn how things are done in politics, especially following a narrow and contentious electoral victory.
This is not to say Trump has to do the equivalent of Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, which the latter announced 20 months after defeating Hubert Humphrey by a margin of 0.7% of the popular vote. However, having won even more narrowly, Trump could have done what George W. Bush did in his own slimly won first term’s second month, when he went to visit Democratic lawmakers in their retreat in the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania in 2001.
With emotions still raw following the vote-count drama that decided his contest with Al Gore, Bush understood that the national interest demanded a sense of appeasement and healing.
“These are professionals who want to serve their nation,” he said respectfully and sincerely of his adversaries, after having gone more than an extra mile to meet them.
This is not the road Trump has chosen. Impulse – epitomized and fanned by his habitual usage of Twitter – has so far shaped both his style and substance. That is how the sole superpower’s president found the time to tweet a reprimand to department store chain Nordstrom for ceasing to sell his daughter’s clothing and accessory line, while failing so far to introduce the tax reform blueprint and the infrastructure restoration bill that were his central economic promises.
Coupled with the abrupt departure of national security adviser Michael Flynn, there is for now on the Hill a sense of uncertainty and disorder almost akin to the book of Esther’s tragicomic dynamics in Ahasuerus’s court.
“It’s a dysfunctional White House,” said Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain. “Nobody knows who’s in charge, and nobody knows who is setting policy.”
Even closer to Trump’s political location, Secretary of Defense James Mattis distanced himself from his boss’s tirade against the media, saying he had “no problem with the media,” after Trump had said that journalists were “some of the most dishonest people” and later tweeted that ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and The New York Times are “the fake news media” and “the enemy of the American people.”
McCain’s outcry is part of a spreading fear among Republican lawmakers that Trump’s personal conduct and political delivery might cost some of them their seats. Alongside this horizontal spread of concern in the political system, there is a vertical trickle into the agencies the politicians oversee, a sense of trepidation voiced by Gen. Raymond Tony Thomas, head of the US Army’s Special Operations Command, who reportedly said in a military forum that the US government is “in unbelievable turmoil.”
This turbulence, then, was the setting in which Netanyahu last week emerged in a White House whose resolve to shed the previous president’s Middle Eastern legacy could not be stated more plainly.
FOR NETANYAHU, the new era’s spirit became evident already at the White House’s driveway, where he and his wife, Sara, were greeted on a red carpet by the visibly beaming president and first lady Melania.
The open display of affection was itself a novelty after what Netanyahu had been through during Barack Obama’s presidency, and also Bill Clinton’s, which overlapped Netanyahu’s first premiership.
Clearly, Trump’s shift has in store nothing like the showdown in Congress that Netanyahu had with Obama. Trump and Netanyahu seemed as happy for each other as a pair of reunited lovers, with Netanyahu indulging in the momentary flight from the investigations that haunt him in Jerusalem, and Trump welcoming the reprieve from the bickering that is his daily diet.
Yet the two’s rapport was more than emotional. Washington’s Mideast policy is indeed ready to change radically.
One change concerns the Palestinian front. Trump’s statement that he does not insist on the two-state formula breaks with what has been American dogma for nearly a quarter of a century.
In this regard, it can be said that the Palestinians have again not missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The American adoption of this idea provided the Palestinians with a viable chance for statehood that will now be increasingly difficult to restore.
The growing American lack of interest in the Palestinian situation is intensified by the Arab civil wars, as US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle increasingly conclude that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the cause of the region’s problems, unlike what Obama implied in his Cairo speech of 2009.
True, Netanyahu was given no green light to do as he pleases in the West Bank. Trump’s request as the two faced reporters, “hold back on settlements for a little bit,” poured cold water on those standing to Netanyahu’s right who celebrated Trump’s victory as a messianic epiphany.
The same goes for the US Embassy’s transfer to Jerusalem, a vow from which Trump seems to be retreating.
Similarly, Ambassador-designate David Friedman’s statement to a Senate confirmation panel that he backs the two-state solution demonstrated the limits of Washington’s new toleration of the Right’s agenda.
Even so, change is deep because Trump fully accepts most Israelis’ views on the two issues that overshadow the broader Mideast: terrorism and Iran.
THE PREVIOUS administration stubbornly refused to say the West is at war with Islamism, namely, the ideology that strives to violently impose Islam on the world. Instead, Obama repeatedly defined “terrorism” as the enemy.
Most Israelis have forged their views on this issue in the wake of last decade’s violence here. Obama’s attitude carried profound meaning because if Islamism is not exposed as a global scourge and an implacable ideology, then the counterattack cannot be properly waged, and the war cannot be won.
Washington’s new management fully agrees with Israel on this front, and this goes not only for the president but also for his cabinet and the Republican-controlled Congress.
The same goes for Iran.
The previous administration’s assumptions that Tehran’s mullahs are reasonable diplomatic partners and that they can offer a reliable cushion for American interests in the Middle East are, in the eyes of the current administration, abominations.
For the new White House, Congress and Pentagon, today’s Iran is the same one that took hostage 52 Americans in Tehran, murdered 305 American and French peacekeepers in Beirut, and then sent agents to attack dissidents, diplomats and embassies worldwide.
To this administration, Obama’s apology in his Cairo speech for America’s (marginal) role in a 1953 coup in Tehran was political lunacy. Iran to them is the inventor of global jihadism and a major engine of the Mideast’s multiple wars, as it seeks a Shi’ite corridor stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and also to the Red Sea through Yemen.
Iran’s role in the Arab civil wars is seen by the current administration as a threat not only because of Tehran’s record on terrorism, and not only because of its stated quest to see Israel erased, but also because of its threat to the Sunni states’ regional hegemony.
America’s new leaders see as its enemies the Iranian regime and all things Islamist – the ideology, its apostles and their troops. Stemming from this is a return to the original American quest to undo, rather than delay, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and a new quest to encourage the ayatollahs’ political demise.
At the same time, the urge to impose democracy, as Obama tried to do in Egypt, is gone, as is the urge to improvise peace the way John Kerry tried to do while shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Washington’s radically changed thinking was made plain in Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu, and then in UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statement in a press conference that the UN’s “prejudiced approach to Israeli-Palestinian issues bears no relationship to the reality of the world,” and that the organization’s “double standards are breathtaking.”
Clearly, Trump and his operation are determined to shed Obama’s Middle Eastern legacy. Then again, just what lasting imprint he will actually leave here is no more predictable than his next tweet.