How Trump Can Repair the Weak U.S.-Israeli Alliance
As Donald Trump embarks on his first year as president of the United States, the most pressing international issues he has to deal with are related to the Middle East. Washington’s relations with traditional ally Israel are seriously frayed after eight years of President Obama. Radical Islam has shaken the region to its core with unprecedented terrorism. An emboldened Iranian regime is on the march towards military supremacy in the region through arming itself with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, all the while continuing to support Shia revolutionaries and terrorists everywhere. Much of the world has been impacted directly by the spreading malignancy of Islamist terror.
As President Trump meets Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, he is making a wise initial move by shoring up America’s critical alliance in the Middle East. But the road ahead is bound to be very difficult. It is worth stepping back to look at the recent history of the region, and the U.S. engagement there, to provide context for shaping a constructive and effective policy towards the region going forward.
American administrations have tried to bring a durable peace to the Middle East for decades. The “Middle East” in this context has meant primarily relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. There have been some successes (notably the 1978 Camp David Accords, which brought peace between Egypt and Israel, and the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel), but a lasting regional peace has been elusive.
George H. W. Bush, aided by former secretary of state James Baker, used the de facto alliance of Israel with several Arab states in the coalition that opposed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the first Gulf War to convene the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference (once the fighting was over and Hussein defeated). However, no lasting regional agreement was achieved.
Bill Clinton invested himself personally in the peace process, learning the ins and outs of Israeli politics and inviting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Camp David and the White House in the waning days of his presidency, only to have his proposals rejected by Arafat and a second intifada erupt in Jerusalem.
George W. Bush made efforts of his own, including a 2003 statement that American policy was based on a two-state solution or, in other words, the carving out of a Palestinian state from Israel-controlled land inhabited by a predominantly Palestinian population. The idea of two states existing side by side would appear to be the best solution to issues of land ownership and national sovereignty.
Barack Obama is the first American president whose position has clearly been more favorable to the Palestinian side than the Israelis. His personal relationship with Netanyahu was contentious, and his end-of-term decision to abstain from a United Nations Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlement activity in territories captured in the 1967 war (an abstention that allowed the resolution to pass) marked a sharp departure from America’s traditional policy of supporting Israel.
With this gloomy history of frustrated peacemaking efforts, what chances does our new president have of making real progress towards establishing a lasting peace in the Middle East?
I would argue that the sad state of Arab-Israeli relations, together with the widespread chaos in the region, create a situation that offers real peacemaking opportunities to the right American leader—and that leader might be Trump.
It has always been vitally important to view Arab-Israeli relations in the context of the wider region, especially Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and the Arab Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman). That context has changed dramatically over recent decades and those changes must be factored into any credible approach to solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Arab national politics, since the time of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, have hinged largely on governments excusing their own failings because of “the Israeli occupation of Arab lands.” Thus state-controlled Arab media (and virtually all of it is state controlled) has for decades blamed Israel for virtually all Arab woes.
In coffee shops from Cairo to Sanaa and Beirut, I have heard this refrain picked up by locals, usually with a CIA conspiracy or two thrown in for good measure.
I have found the same views espoused by government ministers and wealthy businessmen. Sometimes these positions are supported by popular anti-Jewish propaganda. A Saudi minister of commerce told me in all seriousness that the key to understanding the Middle East conflict, and most of the problems in the world for that matter, could be found in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document he was printing and distributing. The fact that this tract, which blames a Jewish conspiracy for creating many of the problems in the world, has long been debunked as a fake, did not dampen the enthusiasm of the minister.
But the weak economic performance of Arab governments in general, the lack of opportunities they have provided to young people, and the oft-repeated siren call of “al-Islam, huwa al-hall” (Islam is the solution) have produced radicalization of Muslim youth and growing popularity of Islamist terror groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
Because of the regional connections to the Arab-Israeli conflict, there cannot be an Arab-Israeli peace in isolation of stability in the wider region. Arab governments (and Iran) continue to meddle in Palestinian affairs, partly out of ideological commitment to crush Israel as a thorn in Islam’s side, and partly to deflect religious and political passions among their populations—passions that can translate into threats to the status quo and to their power.
The most important change in the region has been the rise of radical Islam. In the post–World War II era of growing Arab nationalism, the leading state ideologies were those of the Left, from the outright communism of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) to the Baathism of Iraq and Syria, to Nasserism in Egypt and various other shades of state socialism in Libya and Algeria. Visiting these countries was always creepy, to varying degrees, depending on the extent to which they were able to implement police states modeled after Soviet bloc countries. In Aden, state propaganda sought to cover a pathetic economy and miserable standard of living. In Iraq and Syria, the presence of spies was always tangible, and you had to be careful about what you said and did.
The Arab terror organizations of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were all cut from Marxist revolutionary cloth, in the model of the national liberation fronts that proliferated around the world at that time.
The Palestinian opposition to Israel was spearheaded by such Marxist groups, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, founded in 1964 and headed by Yasser Arafat; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, founded by George Habash in 1967; and its offshoot, the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), founded in 1969 by Nayef Hawatmeh. Other terrorists, such as Abu Nidal, whose evil exploits around the world grabbed headlines in the 1970s and 1980s, were also driven by the same revolutionary fervor.
During the Cold War, the Marxist groups enjoyed active support from Soviet bloc countries, notably Russia, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and also from socialist Arab regimes, such as Hafez al-Assad’s Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Marxism and Islam were always uneasy bedfellows, however, and without the support of leftist regimes in Damascus, Baghdad and elsewhere, the “liberation movements” had little support within the region. I worked for a while with a cousin of DFLP’s Hawatmeh on the Jordan Times. As a Palestinian, he had general sympathy for the “resistance movement,” but he was no Marxist and preferred the relative stability and comforts of life in Amman to that of the revolutionaries based in Damascus.
I met very few authentic Arab Marxists over the twenty-five years I spent in the Middle East. I suspect there are few left, now that the erstwhile Soviet allies in the region have all undergone transformative changes.
With the rise of Islamist Iran through the 1979 revolution, two new elements entered the toxic mix of violent revolution and terrorism in the Middle East. The first was militant Shia Islam. Long the younger, weaker brother to Sunni-dominated states, Iran’s ayatollahs replaced the generally pro-Western government of the shah with a regime dedicated to a radical, resentment-filled ideology that pits Shiism as the one true Islam against the majority-Sunni world (as well as against the rest of the world).
The anti-Western sentiment was palpable in Tehran during the uneasy last days of the shah. Centurion tanks were parked on street corners as a last move to hold onto power, but bearded young men were throwing firebombs at banks and other symbols of Western influence. Some would slow their cars and roll the windows down to send a curse in my direction as I walked the sidewalks. I never experienced that sort of hostility anywhere else in the region.
The rise of militant Shiism has resulted in ideological, political and military clashes between Iran and the Sunni world. The Iranian-led Shia Muslim crusade has manifested through Iran-backed agitation and terror using Shia populations in Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen, among others. It also prompted Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980, reviving long-standing rivalry, followed by eight years of war between the two neighbors, costing over a million lives.
Radical Shiism also gave birth to Islamic terrorism as we know it today, including the horrific practice of suicide bombings. The beginnings of radical Islamic terrorism were evident in the bloody purges carried out by the victorious ayatollahs against pro-monarchy elements, intellectuals and religious minorities in Iran immediately after the success of their revolution.
After removing threats at home, the Iranian regime began to export its terror against regional targets, with its first efforts being focused on Lebanon. That country’s large Shia population provided support for Iran’s adventures, especially through Hezbollah, its dominant political and military organization.
Thus “Islamic terrorism” first really came to our attention in the West when, in 1983, two truck bombs were driven onto a peacekeepers’ base in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. Marines, fifty-eight French soldiers and six civilians: 305 people in all.
Also dead in Beirut were the two drivers. It was evident that the terror masters considered their deaths an insignificant price to pay for such a significant and deadly strike. It has always been evident that Middle East regimes care little or nothing for individuals, but the spread of suicide bombing to embrace thousands of young Muslims (against the cynical promise of a reward in heaven) brought this great moral deficiency home to the rest of the world.
And so, in pretty short order, the Islamists trumped the communists in wreaking havoc in the Middle East. Since 1983 the Islamists have rapidly gained ascendancy, to the point that outright Marxists or other radical socialists have not been able to organize into effective terror or other “liberation movements” in the region in recent times.
This change from Marxist to Islamic terrorism has taken place in Palestine too. The Marxist “liberation movements” that conducted terror attacks against Israel have given way to Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement), which not only is responsible for most of the terror perpetrated against Israel, but also runs Gaza as a political organization.
Iran has supported Hamas (with money and weapons) even though it is a Sunni Arab movement. This is simply because Iran hates Israel more than it hates any Sunni movement or government.
The rise of Al Qaeda, and later ISIS, as with Hamas before them, are among the most notable consequences of Iran’s creation of radical Islamic terrorism. These terror groups combine the radical, theocratic ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, with the methods introduced by the Islamic Republic of Iran. All of these groups, and their offshoots and affiliates (such as the Nusra Front in Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria), are predominantly made up of Sunni Muslims.
Because, as Sunnis, these groups provide a counterweight to Shia Iran, several of the Sunni Arab regimes (as well as wealthy individuals) have given support to the groups. Some supporters believe they can achieve a political or strategic advantage by doing so. Thus, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have given money to Hamas (to keep in the good graces of the Palestinians), and Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to shore up the ruling Qatari family against potential threats from radical Islam.
The Obama administration was a disaster in its policies towards the Middle East. Not only did it weaken the U.S.-Israel alliance, which has long stood as the bedrock of American policy in the region, it caved to Iran by ending sanctions and sending $150 billion to that bloodthirsty regime—without eliminating its nuclear program or forcing it to stop promoting terror in the region. Iran is the mortal enemy of Israel and other U.S. allies in the region, including moderate Arab regimes and Turkey.
And there are other significant Obama administration failures in the region. The administration squandered the peace achieved in Iraq through the surge of U.S. forces and the establishment of a democratically elected government. It left Afghanistan in turmoil by announcing plans for U.S. troops to withdraw before they embarked on a surge. It got involved militarily in Libya without a plan for the post-Qaddafi era, leaving the country in chaos. The administration also threatened military action in Syria, but then stood by and watched as half a million people were killed and millions made refugees. The Obama administration annoyed and let down one ally after another in the region.
The book of Job (28:28) offers an insight that could serve those who would seek peace in the Middle East: “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” With Marxism in the Middle East largely irrelevant now, the forces roiling the region are fundamentally religious, and need to be seen as such. Any true understanding of the players in the region and any durable peace achieved among them will have to take religious forces into account.
Religion is ultimately a much more powerful force than political ideology, and as such is more difficult to deal with. Wisdom is necessary. The Muslim world is far from monolithic. The vast majority of Muslims seek normal things in their lives, including peace and prosperity. These are potential allies for peacemaking, as are some of the truly spiritual movements, known as Sufis. The Sufi approach to Islam is focused on self-discipline and good deeds, not revolution and terror.
I have spent time with Sufi groups in Egypt, Jordan and Sudan. In every case, I found participants in dhikr, the Sufi form of devotion, to be sincere in their faith and concerned with serving others. A Sufi sheikh in Omdurman, a city across the Nile from Khartoum, told me that the main Muslim Brotherhood ideologue of Sudan, the late Hassan al-Turabi, had on several occasions tried to recruit him and his followers to the government’s cause (at that time, Turabi was the power behind President Omar al-Bashir). The sheikh had always declined.
The ultimate solution to Islamist terrorism is for the Muslim world to purge it completely from its midst. This begins with education, which has long been corrupted by hate-filled speeches by imams in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and espoused in the media by major Muslim leaders, like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi on Al Jazeera.
In the meantime, Washington must be unrelenting and unabashed in calling Islamic terrorism what it is, and in working with allies to stamp it out. With Washington unequivocally on the side of moderate and peace-loving governments and movements, those allies will be encouraged to be strong as well, together creating an effective anti-terror alliance.
Obama is a secularist. He was surrounded in youth and young adulthood by communists and other intellectuals of the Left who find their home in academia and left-wing organizations. He never abandoned their sphere of influence, as we learned over his years as president.
Secularists are afraid of radical Islam, as they are of other expressions of strongly held religious belief. In today’s world, however, almost all religious-inspired violence comes from the Islamic world. With little or nothing to fear from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or other religious movements, the only real danger comes from Islamic extremism. Without understanding the power of the religious force driving that extremism, but fearing what it senses nonetheless, the secularists believe the best response is appeasement.
Obama’s approach to America’s sworn enemies was typically appeasement, whether through the Iran nuclear deal or the accommodation with Cuba’s Communist Castros. He didn’t really want to take on Russia’s empire-building Vladimir Putin or Syria’s Baathist Bashar al-Assad. If the evil is real, appeasement never works, and the Obama foreign-policy legacy is dismal as a result.
So what would a wise Middle East policy look like?
The beginning of foreign-policy wisdom towards the Middle East is to recognize and align with real allies, and then work with them to build strong ties through which we can together overcome the evil forces that plague the region and prevent peace.
First on the list is Israel. There are bonds between America and Israel forged out of guilt over the Holocaust, but much more important than these are the shared values. The Jewish state has deep religious, cultural and intellectual roots that are inextricably entwined with those of the United States, which was founded by wise (yes, God-fearing) and enlightened people.
Second, there are stable and friendly countries in the Middle East that are critical to forging peace. These include Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and all the Gulf states. Although some of these relationships lack certain elements that bind us to Israel, we share many things in common, including a commitment to stability and peace. Then, too, Islam in its moderate expressions is perfectly able to serve as the religious underpinning for modern states.
Many of the people of these states still lack the freedoms we enjoy under our Bill of Rights. But all of them are sufficiently close to us in objectives to be well worth investing in, whether in economic, cultural, or security and military arenas.
On the foundation of a recreated alliance of the good, the United States can press for policies that will bring about the demise of bad actors and the rise of peaceful states based on mature and fair government.
We must be unequivocal in our opposition to all forms of terror, and determined to drive it from the Middle East. There are no excuses for religious or political motivation for terrorism, and those who espouse these excuses must be pushed to the periphery of influence and decisionmaking in the region. Al Qaeda and ISIS, and other groups of their ilk, do believe they are carrying out a jihad. They believe in the Islamic view that the world is divided into a Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb (literally House of Islam and House of War). They believe they must fight until the whole world belongs to Islam.
Can President Trump be the wise leader needed?
I think so. He campaigned on a promise to restore close ties with Israel and to smash ISIS and other Islamist terror organizations. These are good intentions.
And as he has demonstrated in his first action-packed weeks in office, he is a man of action. Simply put, he knows how to get things done. He is not satisfied by words alone, only by words combined with useful action. He no doubt will require time to learn more about the players in the region, but he is off to a good start by reconfirming the special relationship between the United States and Israel. He has also wasted no time in stating his intention to destroy ISIS and other Islamic terror organizations.
The problems in the Middle East are only intractable if you lack courage and wisdom in taking them on. I believe Donald Trump has both and will be able to achieve more than his predecessors towards building a durable peace in the region.
Thomas Cromwell studied Arabic in the Middle East. He established and ran a language institute in Alexandria. He was a writer and editor for the Jordan Times. Additionally, he established the Middle East Times in Cyprus and was the publication’s publisher and editor for eighteen years.
Image: The IDF Paratroopers Brigade training in the Golan Heights. Wikimedia Commons/Israel Defense Forces