Arriving in Israel on 22 May, Donald Trump told the Israeli President that he’d ‘just got back from the Middle East’. Not the most geographically informed start to the visit but from then on it was all schmooze, to the obvious delight of Trump’s hosts. Remarkably, Trump gave his twitter fingers a well-deserved rest and stayed on script. This might have been welcome except for the script itself. It appeared to include nothing of consequence – so even Trump’s critics acknowledged that as he had nothing to say he said it well. As Trump settled back into the White House, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – both important to US strategic interests in the Middle East – resumed their spiteful relationship.
For a President who has spoken of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the ‘ultimate deal’ to finish the ‘war that never ends’ what was truly remarkable about Trump’s two-day sojourn in Israel was the public absence of any pointer as to how his administration plans to put that deal together. Nothing about Palestinian statehood – or the alternatives, nothing about Israeli settlements, nothing about borders and capitals, nothing about mutual security, nothing about Palestinian refugees. These issues are critical to any deal yet there was not the faintest hint of how the Trump administration might approach them. In the words of one Israeli commentator, Trump offered Israelis a diet consisting almost entirely of sugar and sweets.
Some of the saccharine quickly rubbed off when, on 1 June, Trump broke an election promise and signed a presidential waiver delaying the move of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Reaction from Israeli and Palestinian leaders was predictable, one Zionist Union MP describing Trump as a ‘false Messiah’. But US Presidents have signed the waiver every six month since 1998 and the fact that Trump broke a pre-election undertaking surprised no-one. The White House said the waiver was a ‘decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians’. It’s a card to be dealt much later in any negotiating process.
Media reports have suggested the US is mulling over a ‘Principles Paper to restart negotiations. We might ask what new principles are left to be discovered? The elements of a resolution go back to the much maligned (sometimes unfairly) 1993 Declaration of Principles. In late 2016, then US Secretary of State’s, John Kerry, unveiled the six principles which he said had to underlie a renewed search for peace based on a two-state solution.
Perhaps these familiar principles are now old hat. During Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last February, Trump declared that the US ‘will encourage peace and really a great peace deal … But it is the parties themselves who must directly negotiate such an agreement. To be honest, if Bibi [Netanyahu] and the Palestinians, if Israel and the Palestinians are happy – I’m happy with the one they like the best.’
Trump’s happiness is irrelevant. It is delusional to think that the Palestinians will give up on a state of their own, or that Israelis will accept a one-state solution in which, over time, Jews might become a minority.
Barely had Trump settled back into the White House than Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar. There is a long history of antagonism between the Saudis and Qataris, based on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, its funding of Al-Jazeera and its less than openly hostile relationship with Iran. The ostensible reason for the break was Qatar’s support for ‘terrorism’, quite ironic given Saudi Arabia’s record of support for extremist Islamic thinking.
But with his tweeting fingers back on normal duty Trump wrote with usual modesty and understatement:
During my recent trip to the Middle East [during which he met with the Emir of Qatar] I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology … Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!
So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off … They said they would take a hard line on funding … Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!
We’ve yet to see Trump’s analysis of the possible effect on the operation of al-Udeid air base in Qatar, home to the US military’s Central Command and about 10,000 American troops. Vladimir Putin will be watching with interest.
Peter Rodgers is a former Australian Ambassador to Israel who has written two books on the Middle East (Herzl’s Nightmare: one land, two peoples; Arabian Plights – the future Middle East)