Trump’s approach to Middle East politics will further muddle the debate

Trump may fool some of his followers but the rest of the world sees through his theatrics.
Wednesday 08/08/2018
US President Donald Trump, on August 7, 2018. (AP)
US President Donald Trump, on August 7, 2018. (AP)

US President Donald Trump may think he is the latest and the greatest of them all in everything from business to politics.

He may think he is more cunning than a KGB officer who was in charge of East Germany under Soviet rule.

He may even believe he can convince the North Koreans to forgo their nuclear weapons and that he is savvy enough to negotiate with the Iranian leadership.

The cold, hard fact is, as much as he wants to believe he is these things, he is not.

Trump takes his wishes and aspirations for realities. He may fool himself and some of his followers but the rest of the world sees through his theatrics. What Trump does not even begin to understand are the complexities of many of the burning issues into which he has been delving. Here are a few examples:

In dealing with North Korea’s brutal dictator, Trump was quick to believe that what was agreed to during the summit in Singapore would be respected by Pyongyang. Trump’s political inexperience was immediately apparent and the North Koreans used it to their advantage.

Trump is doing much the same in the Middle East by telling the mullahs in Tehran he is ready to meet with them with no preconditions. That is not the way to deal with autocratic regimes. In doing so, Trump is giving the Iranians political clout they can then use against their own people.

Trump apparently believes he can solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, although others with far more experience and knowledge of the issues have failed. If Trump bothered to read the history of the dispute he would have realised why 17 attempts to resolve the conflict had failed.

The first attempt was a peace proposal put forward in 1947 by Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat acting on behalf of the UN Security Council. Bernadotte was assassinated a year later in Jerusalem by members of Lehi, a Jewish underground movement. Ironically, Bernadotte’s most famous accomplishment was his successful mediation for the release of some 31,000 prisoners from German concentration camps during the second world war.

UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 became the basis on which most other peace initiatives in the Middle East are modelled. Resolution 242 calls for “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East, which should include the applications of both the following principles: (i) withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict and (ii) termination of all claims or states of belligerency.”

Here is a lesson worth remembering when mediating in sensitive conflicts. The major setback caused by Resolution 242 was the omission of one word, one small word that has been at the very centre of the debate. That word is “all.”

The resolution should have read: “Withdrawal of all Israeli forces from all territories occupied. Then there would have been no room for ambiguity. Needless to say, Resolution 242 never got the peace process anywhere, though it remains as the basis of all future discussions.

The importance of a simple word such as “all” is a reminder of how delicate such discussions can be. Given Trump’s tendencies to change directions, his bull-in-a-china-shop approach, combined with his use (and abuse) of Twitter, has the makings of a diplomat’s nightmare.

For the record, one can count on the following failed initiatives:

Land for Peace: A 1967 proposal under which Israel would return occupied land in the 1967 war in exchange for peace and security with full recognition by the Arab world.

The Gunnar Jarring Mission: An undertaking by the special envoy to the Middle East on behalf of the Security Council in 1967. Jarring was the Swedish ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Then followed the Rogers' plan, named after US Secretary of State William P. Rogers. It was rejected by Israel.

Then came Security Council Resolution 338 in 1973, which called for establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.

Soon after the historic visit to Jerusalem by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1977, a group of 348 Israeli military officers urged their country’s prime minister to continue peace negotiations with the Palestinians. This led to the Peace Now movement.

Much hope was pinned on the 1991 Madrid Conference. Convened under the patronage of the Spanish government and hosted jointly by the United States, the Soviet Union and the Spanish government in October 1991, with the participation of US President George W. Bush and US Secretary of State James Baker, invitations were extended to Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians.

Next came the Oslo Accords. Officially called the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, or Declaration of Principles, this was a major turning point in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Oslo was the first official direct face-to-face meeting between Israel and political representatives of the Palestinians.

The final issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict include four major points:

-- The right of return of Palestinian refugees to historic Palestine.

-- Final borders.

-- Jerusalem, claimed as the capital of both Israelis and Palestinians.

-- Security for Israel.

Trump has already addressed the question of Jerusalem but in his haste and undiplomatic manner set the agenda back a decade or two.

It is time to leave diplomacy to the diplomats. It may well take them decades to get anything done, yet it is better than doing away with decades of meticulous work by the professionals who know a thing or two about conflict resolution.