Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trump’s dangerous world

Barely in office for a month, Donald Trump is upturning longstanding US policy in many directions, including on the Middle East. The Arabs must coordinate a response

I wonder what effect Arab embassies in Washington are having, or the frequent visits by Arab foreign ministers and intensive contacts between Washington and numerous Arab capitals as the Trump administration prepares to plunge the entire Middle East into a crucible and acts as though there is no time for thought or prudence. The “threat” from the Arab side is non-existent these days for reasons we all know. All Arab countries have been severely buffeted by hot desert sandstorms and those that managed to survive intact had to overcome strenuous economic and political circumstances or contend with a sharp decline in oil prices. As for those that did not make it to safer shores, the consequences are evident in the violence, divisions, terrorism and massive tragedies in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The upshot for all countries, whether or not they are still in the midst of the storm, was a state of intense instability and an inability to sustain further crises, uprisings and turmoil.

The White House is playing with fire at a time when it is revealing to the American public that Trump’s critics during the campaign were right: He is not qualified to be president. A presidential national security adviser was forced to resign and a federal judicial authority overturned a president’s executive order before the president completed his first three weeks in office. Nothing like this has ever happened before in US history. Never before has a newly elected president locked horns with the press and with other government authorities so soon after being sworn in. There was no honeymoon, let alone a first 100 days before the reckoning begins. Against this fraught backdrop, Trump began to grapple with the Middle East in very foreboding ways. The first step was to block the appointment of former Palestinian prime minister Sallam Fayyad, a highly respected figure and internationally reputed for his competence and integrity, as the UN secretary-general’s special envoy to Libya. That action was extremely telling of the US president’s ignorance on this region, its people and its issues. Even former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, who currently lectures at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, felt compelled to speak out against the injustice and to appeal for US backing for Fayyad as the UN special envoy to Libya. In a lengthy article, he called the “blackballing” of the former Palestinian prime minister “yet another worrying sign of plain stupidity and blatant bias on the part of our newly sworn-in administration”.

However, the more important development occurred during Netanyahu’s visit to Washington. In a press conference, Trump indicated that he was prepared to relinquish the US’s commitment to the “two-state solution”, which is to say the foundation of all political and diplomatic interplay surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict from the UN resolution for the partition of Palestine in 1948 through the Madrid, Oslo and Camp David II negotiations. Trump’s remarks must have sounded like music to Netanyahu, but the problem is that once we drop the two-state solution, there are only three options left. One is the perpetuation of the status quo, which has long been an unstable situation that has given rise to two intifadas, one peaceful and the other armed, and three full scale wars in Gaza. The second is a single state, reflecting the existence of 12 million people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, half of whom are Jews and the other half are Arabs. If this state is to be founded on the principle of equality between all its citizens, this solution would bring the end to the concept of a majority Jewish polity that Israelis regard as essential to their state project. The third solution is also a one state solution, but one in which the Jews control the government and Arabs are cordoned off into apartheid cantonments or are driven out of the country en masse, which the international community — and of course the Palestinians — could not accept.

There is also the possibility that Trump made that gesture in order to allow the Israelis to raise the ceiling of their demands to even higher than usual levels, as a means to pressure the Palestinians into lowing theirs. He used this tactic against Japan, accusing it of not doing enough for the Western coalition. In response, the Japanese prime minister, during a visit to Washington, offered to invest $150 billion in the US in robots, artificial intelligence and high speed railways. Trump also broke with the US’s stance on “one China”, held since 1971, accepting a phone call from the Taiwanese president last month and telling him that he saw no reason to “stick to” that policy. Beijing was incensed. But in spite of its condemnations of Trump’s action, it showed itself willing to entertain a different approach to its trade surplus with the US. Trump’s remarks on the two-state solution may be a gambit of this sort. But if so, the Palestinians have nothing to offer or concede. That demand that they stop the “hatred” for Israel is impossible to meet as long as Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territories.

Trump’s position is inconsistent with every signal he had given to Arab countries, some of which placed hopes in his administration on the grounds that it would not meddle as much in their domestic affairs and because they shared a common interest in eliminating terrorism. Naturally, the Arab position is weakened further by the fact that the Palestinian reality on the ground is less conducive to a two-state solution than it is to a three-state solution: One Israeli, the second in the West Bank, or the little that remains of it after Israeli settlement expansion, and the third in Gaza. Trump is taking advantage of this as he casts Iran as the chief source of threat to the security in the region. Unfortunately, he overlooked the fact that more instability in the region as a result of the Palestinian cause only strengthens the link between it and Iran, which has long played on this cause through Hizbullah and other means.

If we add to the foregoing the go-ahead that he might give to moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the Middle East will quickly reach the point of explosion which, for IS (the Islamic State group) and its sister organisations would be tantamount to a lifeline, sent by Trump.

The Arabs need to act quickly and effectively, diplomatically and politically, in response to Trump’s playing with fire on the Palestinian cause. No Arab country can do this on its own. Such is the magnitude of danger to the security of this region from the Trump world that an entire gamut of policies and drives are required in order to avert the precipitous slide into a deep and dreadful chasm. He is the raging bull in the china shop and totally unpredictable. The turmoil he has unleashed in the US is something for the American people to deal with, but the rest of the world is no less alarmed. The Arab countries should put their heads together in order to determine how best to handle Trump, after which we could open the doors to others in this extremely anxious world.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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