Israel, Egypt emerging as Trump’s top allies in the Middle East

Sunday 29/01/2017
A 2016 file picture shows Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) speaking to the
then-Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump in New York. (Reuters)

Washington - Israel and Egypt are emerging as US President Donald Trump’s top allies in the Middle East as he tries to strengthen US ties in the region with a focus on countering Iran’s influence and fighting Islamic extremists.
In his first few days in office, Trump had separate telephone con­versations with Israeli Prime Minis­ter Binyamin Netanyahu and Egyp­tian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He invited both leaders to visit him in Washington, with Netanyahu’s trip scheduled for early February, a White House statement said. With Sisi, Trump “discussed a visit to the United States in the future” but ap­parently did not fix a date, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
Netanyahu and Sisi were the first leaders from the Middle East to have direct contact with Trump since the inauguration. From what is publicly known, the new president has yet to speak with leaders of other US allies such as Turkey, Jordan or the Gulf countries.
Trump and Netanyahu “agreed to continue to closely consult on a range of regional issues, including addressing the threats posed by Iran”, the White House said. “The president affirmed his unprec­edented commitment to Israel’s security and stressed that counter­ing ISIL and other radical Islamic terrorist groups will be a priority for his administration”, the statement added, using a different acronym for the Islamic State (ISIS).
Following Trump’s inauguration, Israel announced a major expan­sion of settlements on Palestinian territory in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Trump’s prede­cessor, Barack Obama, who had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu, saw the settlements as a factor pre­venting a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in December allowed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution con­demning the practice.
In contrast, Trump did not com­ment on the settlement expansion, which is considered illegal under international law. The new admin­istration’s stance is seen as an en­couragement for unilateral Israeli action. “The president emphasised that peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties,” the White House said.
In his conversation with Sisi, Trump discussed “military assis­tance to Egypt and working with Egypt to ensure that assistance most effectively supports the Egyp­tian military’s fight against terror­ism”, Spicer said in reference to Egypt’s battles with Islamic mili­tants on the Sinai peninsula. In ad­dition, Trump “offered to discuss ways the United States could sup­port Egypt’s economic reform pro­gramme”, the spokesman said.
US media reported that Trump was planning to designate the Muslim Brotherhood — Sisi’s main political adversary — a terrorist or­ganisation. The Egyptian president came to power in 2013 after top­pling Muhammad Morsi, a senior Brotherhood member.
Trump’s overtures to Israel and Egypt are partially motivated by a perceived need to reassure tra­ditional US partners in the Middle East. During last year’s presiden­tial campaign, Trump argued that Obama was weak on terrorism and had abandoned key US allies, Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said. “So it’s not surprising that Trump is mov­ing very quickly” to re-establish close ties with Israel and Egypt,” he added.
Trager said Israel and Egypt fit Trump’s priority of fighting terror­ism in the Middle East and were seen as trusted “local partners”. Egypt can expect that US military aid under Trump will not be tied to political issues, including demo­cratic reforms, but the Sisi govern­ment is likely to be under an ob­ligation to deliver results. So far, reports on that front were “mixed”, Trager said. Egypt’s security forces have been fighting ISIS and other militant groups in the Sinai but are yet to assert control over the terri­tory.
Trump’s US-Israel-Egypt triangle could face other challenges as well. The new president’s foreign policy agenda foresees a decidedly pro- Israel approach to the Israeli-Pales­tinian conflict, which could anger Egypt. “Egyptians have a soft spot for the Palestinians,” said Hisham Fahmy, chief executive officer of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt.
One controversial issue could be Trump’s plan to move the US em­bassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jeru­salem, a project pushed by his nom­inee for the post of US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Moving the embassy would be a strong sig­nal of US support for Israel’s claim to the whole of the city, which is seen by Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
CNN reported that Trump’s team had informed US allies that it was moving the embassy to Jerusalem but Spicer said no decision had been taken. “We’re at the very early stages of that decision-making pro­cess,” the White House spokesman said. Israeli broadcaster Channel 2 has reported that, under a com­promise deal, Friedman could live in Jerusalem but the embassy itself would remain in Tel Aviv.
Fahmy expressed hope that the “reality of the situation” in the Mid­dle East as well as objections raised by Egypt and other US partners would influence the Trump admin­istration’s stance. “Sisi will bring the Palestinians into the equation,” he said.