Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Dangerous signals

Netanyahu’s visit to Washington allowed Trump to deliver a message that US policy could shift. But whether it can and not lead to a slide in the region towards greater instability remains to be seen

Two days after the resignation of his national security adviser, a resignation that has sent shockwaves through Washington and the United States, President Donald Trump, amidst the political storm, received Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House, Wednesday, 15 February. It was the first time the two leaders met officially after the inauguration of Trump last month.

The meeting was highly anticipated in order to lay to rest the guessing game surrounding the true intentions of the Trump administration concerning peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, stalled since April 2014. The Israeli government and the extreme right in Israel have seen in the person of the US president not only a great supporter for their country, but also one not entirely hostile towards Israeli settlements in the West Bank. That explains why Israeli authorities went full steam ahead with housing construction in East Jerusalem and in other parts of Zone C in the West Bank. The move calls into question two-state solution for peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Many argue that this is the only viable and sustainable option for Israel and the future of security and stability in the Middle East. The other alternatives invite insecurity and instability in the region. A binational state would be nothing short of an apartheid system for the Palestinians and the Arabs of Israel. And the status quo — that is, permanent occupation of Palestinian territories and perpetual subjugation of Palestinians — is just as untenable from the political, strategic and moral perspectives. The free world and humanity as a whole cannot accept the perpetuation of the status quo. Furthermore, President Trump had vowed during his election campaign to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Washington meeting was expected to furnish clarity on this point also.

In all events, the meeting between the US president and the Israeli prime minister was highly unusual, in both form and substance.

The two held a press conference prior to their official talks — something that rarely happens. Normally, the US president would hold a photo-op with his foreign guests before their meetings begin. On such occasions the two sides talk to the press, in general terms, about their respective positions on issues that interest them and the press pool would take pictures. But on 15 February, a press conference was held in which President Trump and the Israeli prime minister did their very best to prove to their respective supporters and to the world that they are best friends and that relations between the United States and Israel are like no other. Even on the personal level, the scene was interesting to watch. Two leaders exchanging banter about their respective families. When a reporter asked the US president about the reasons behind the rise of what he described as hostile actions against Jews in the UnitedStates, the Israeli prime minister hurried to the defence of his host.

As to the substance, it is a Pandora’s box. The prestigious French daily, Le Monde, summed it up in its editorial of 17 February, stressing that the Israeli prime minister should feel happy with the results of his talks with the US president, for the former would keep claiming that he is not for the annexation of the West Bank, but in the meantime without committing himself to the establishment of a Palestinian state. For his part, the US president broke new ground for US diplomatic endeavours in the Middle East. From 2003 onwards, US diplomacy has unconditionally backed the two-state solution and left working out the details and the mechanisms to the two interested parties. The Middle East Quartet, in which the United States has been an active player, has worked with the Israelis and the Palestinians towards this goal, among other objectives. Security Council resolutions that adopted unanimously from 2003 onwards have called for the establishment of a future Palestine. So it was a big surprise to hear Trump saying that he is open to any deal that the Palestinians and the Israelis agree upon, be it the two-state solution or any other scheme.

Whether the US president intended to send an indirect message to the world that Washington is no longer committed to an independent Palestine remains to be seen. However, the ambiguous position on the part of President Trump, intended or not, was warmly received back in Israel by no other than Naftali Bennett, education minister and leader of Bituna Israel, an extreme right political party with a pro-settlement policy. In a state of euphoria unbecoming of a responsible politician, he commented on this ambiguity by stressing that, “this is the end of an era. The Palestinian flag has come down and has been replaced by the Israeli flag.

The prime minister displayed leadership and daring and strengthened Israel’s security.” Before the departure of Netanyahu to Washington, Bennett had warned him not to “ever mention a Palestinian state” for if he would not heed this advice “the earth will shake” according to the Israeli minister. For a prime minister under police investigation in three cases (File 1000, File 2000 and File 3000) that could lead to his indictment and removal from office, the warning was a stark reminder. Netanyahu did not fail his minister. Nor the settlement movement back home.

Now it is incumbent on President Trump to explain to the world what will be his policies towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Will his administration stress Israeli security needs — which are not overly convincing, to say the least — at the expense of the inalienable Palestinian right to an independent and sovereign Palestine, or will American diplomacy keep working with both the Palestinians and the Israelis to help them implement the two-state solution? Will the Trump administration be against annexing the West Bank, or would it hold that the West Bank is occupied territory? Will the US administration be clear on where it actually stands on the “land for peace” formula, the basis of Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967, the resolution that has become the legal and political cornerstone of all peace efforts in the Middle East after the June War of 1967? It is also the basis for the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of March 1979, as well as the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty of October 1994.

The other topic that merits discussion in dealing with the Trump-Netanyahu meeting is the grand security architecture for the Middle East that the two raised in their joint press conference and official talks. Aside from asking the US president to accept illegal Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, a request that the Americans have not commented on yet, the Israeli prime minister — and he is a master in this respect — raised the security threats facing Israel and summed them up in what he called “Islamic terrorism” and Iran. President Trump obliged, unsurprisingly. He said that the “security challenges faced by Israel are enormous, including the threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” He brought up the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the P5+1 in July 2015 under the Obama administration, a deal that he previously promised to abrogate, pointing to it as, “One of the worst deals I have ever seen.” “My administration has already imposed new sanctions on Iran, and I will do more to prevent Iran from ever developing … a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Over-dramatising the security threats that confront his country, the Israeli prime minister made it clear that the American-Israeli alliance is based “on a deep bond of common values and common interests. And, increasingly, those values and interests are under attack by one malevolent force: Radical Islamic terror.” That was sweet music to the ears of many top officials at the White House.

Netanyahu went further and said, addressing the US president, that “under his leadership, we can reverse the rising tide of radical Islam. And in this great task… Israel stands with you and I stand with you.”

It is one thing for President Trump to say that he would fight “Islamic” terrorism and something else that a foreign leader, visiting the White House publicly and malignantly, involve, commit and portray the US president as someone bent on fighting Islam and Muslims.

On the grand security scheme in the Middle East, Netanyahu said the following: “In rolling back militant Islam, we can seize an historic opportunity — because, for the first time… in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but increasingly, as an ally. And I believe that under your leadership, this change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace.”

Is militant Islam synonymous with “radical Islamic terrorism”? A question that needs further scrutiny on the part of the Trump administration.

So far as this point is concerned, President Trump emphasised that his administration “is committed to working with Israel and our common allies in the region towards greater security and stability. That includes towards a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.”

The last part of the quote should sound promising. However, the devil always lies in the detail. We are awaiting more substance from the White House on its vision for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, and the reference points on which they would be based.

It was a little bit heartening to hear the US president telling his guest that “as with any successful negotiation both sides will have tomake compromises.” Also, he asked Netanyahu to show some kind of restraint in settlement construction. According to the White House, President Trump and the Israeli prime minister “discussed the issue of settlement construction, and agreed to continue those discussions and to work out an approach that is consistent with the goal of advancing peace and security.”

As far as bilateral relations are concerned, the two leaders have directed their respective people to form joint working teams to “dramatically improve bilateral relations” in various fields such as cybersecurity, intelligence, security, trade, technology, countering the threats posed by Iran and other actors, and promoting Arab-Israeli cooperation, including economic cooperation. Another working group that would be set up would focus on enabling “the growth of the Palestinian economy”.

The White House described the visit of Netanyahu to Washington as a “new day for the United States-Israel relationship, defined by a responsible approach to the challenges and opportunities our two countries face in the Middle East.”

In this wake, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is due to pay a visit to Washington soon. The invitation was extended by President Trump during a phone call with the Egyptian head of state after the US president was sworn in. The date will be officially announced in the coming days. It will be a visit full of challenges, not the least of which is not to fall into the trap that the present White House is the United States itself. It will be a difficult task for the Egyptian side, walking that tight rope. But it must be done for the long-term viability and sustainability of the Egyptian-American relationship.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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