US policy on the Middle East just got foggier

As in the Saudi-Qatar dispute, the United States is not considered an impartial broker in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians.
Sunday 11/03/2018
US President Donald Trump (R) walks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, on March 5.     (AP)
On shaky ground. US President Donald Trump (R) walks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, on March 5 (AP)

WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the White House deepened uncertainty about the United States’ Middle East policy by demonstrating a growing gap between US President Donald Trump’s official pronouncements as a would-be peace broker and practical steps that run counter to the goal of a peace plan.

Trump met with Netanyahu just weeks after announcing he would move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14, the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel. While Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital fuelled Palestinian frustration with Washington, the US president stated it had increased, not diminished, the prospects of a peace agreement.

“Nobody could get past, number one, Jerusalem,” Trump said at a news conference with Netanyahu March 5. “We’ve taken it off the table. So this gives us a real opportunity to peace. We’ll see how it works out. The Palestinians, I think, are wanting to come back to the table very badly.”

Trump did not explain why the Palestinians would agree to talks when the United States had fulfilled a major wish of the Israelis — recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — before negotiations even started. He also did not say whether he would travel to Israel for the opening of the embassy in May.

Trump was equally vague on his administration’s promised Middle East peace plan. He said his team, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, was working on the plan that offered a “very good chance” for peace. The president did not provide details or say when the plan would be published.

Netanyahu later said Trump had not given him details about the plan and that the two spent 15 minutes of their 2-hour meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before moving on to the Iran issue.

Israel wants Trump to take the United States out of the international nuclear agreement with Tehran. The president, who faces a May deadline for a decision, has said he wants to fix the accord or let it collapse. Netanyahu pushed for a robust stance against Tehran and used a speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington a day after his meeting with Trump to warn against what he described as a growing threat of Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.

“Darkness is descending on our region. Iran is building an aggressive empire,” Netanyahu said. “I have a message for you today. It’s a very simple one: We must stop Iran. We will stop Iran.”

During the White House meeting, Trump and Netanyahu praised each other as dedicated allies. “The relationship has never been better,” Trump said, adding that he considered it a “great honour” to host Netanyahu. In return, the Israeli prime minister likened Trump to the Persian King Cyrus the Great, who ended the Jews’ Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BC.

To confront Iran, the United States wants to forge an alliance between Israel and Sunni powers in the Middle East but a crisis between Qatar and a Saudi-led bloc of four countries is frustrating efforts to unite the Sunni camp. Two US envoys were in Doha recently to help overcome the row but there was no word on whether they achieved anything.

The US initiative to mediate in the dispute has been undermined by public statements from Trump, who has taken the side of the Saudis and severely criticised Qatar.

However, in a step that signalled Qatar, home to a huge US military base, is seen as an important partner in Washington, the administration announced it had approved the sale of approximately $200 million worth of equipment to upgrade Doha’s air force. “This proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of a friendly country that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Persian Gulf region,” the Defence Security Cooperation Agency, an arm of the US Department of Defence, said in a statement.

Critics say there is a lack of strategic planning by the White House, partly due to the big turnover of advisers in Trump’s team, which makes long-term designs difficult. The resignation of Trump’s chief economic adviser Gary Cohn was the latest in a series of high-level departures that have left the Trump administration struggling to put together coherent policy plans. Dina Powell, a deputy national security adviser and a key figure in Middle East affairs, left the White House in January.

“It is pretty clear that this administration doesn’t know where it’s going,” said Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, an advocacy group in Washington campaigning for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump’s peace plan was unlikely to include anything that would be workable for the Palestinians, Nir said, adding: “There seems to be nothing there.”

As in the Saudi-Qatar dispute, the United States is not considered an impartial broker in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians but as a power allied with one side more than ever. While Trump has supported Netanyahu, he has cut aid for the Palestinians. Trump’s “hopes of being the neutral guy are long gone,” the New York Times said in an analysis of the Netanyahu visit.

Nir said the Trump administration’s public display of engagement for a Middle East peace deal despite the lack of substance was telling. Washington wanted to give the impression that the search for an agreement was ongoing when in fact the administration had no intention to start a serious initiative. The aim was to “use the process to avoid peace or at least to avoid the level of complexity and delicateness that real peace-brokering entails,” Nir said.