At the same time, continued chaos in the Arab world has helped marginalize the Palestinian issue and has placed less pressure on Washington to do something to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The conventional wisdom is that Trump and some of his aides, who perceive the Palestinians as part of the radical Islamist terrorist bloc, would treat the building of new Jewish settlements with benign neglect and place more emphasis on strengthening strategic ties with Israel. After all, Trump has reiterated his commitment to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and has nominated a pro-settlement Jewish activist as his ambassador to Israel.
But again, personal sentiments and fiery rhetoric don’t necessarily make for a coherent policy. To fight ISIS and contain Iran, Washington would still need to rely on the support and cooperation of leading Arab and Muslim states. Israel’s ability to play a major role in U.S. strategy in the Middle East will depend to a large extent on progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, while an explosion of new Israeli-Palestinian violence will play into the hands of Iran and radical Sunni Arab groups and place constraints on pursuing U.S. interests in the region.
Trump’s defense secretary, retired U.S. Marine Gen. James Mattis, who was in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East when he was chief of U.S. Central Command, made that argument during a 2013 speech at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. He said America needed to work “with a sense of urgency” to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because resentment of U.S. support for Israel had hurt America militarily throughout the region.
“I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” Mattis insisted, warning that the “current situation” was unsustainable. He called on Washington to act “with a sense of urgency” toward finding a two-state solution because the chances were “starting to ebb because of the settlements and where they’re at.”
It’s likely that the new Pentagon chief’s advice to his boss in the White House will reflect those concerns. He will probably call for maintaining the current U.S. policy of supporting a two-state solution along the 1967 cease-fire lines and oppose changes in the status quo in the West Bank in the form of new Jewish settlements. New Israeli-Palestinian violence may force Trump to take that advice seriously.
Or not. President Trump may choose to follow the example of another president, Harry Truman, who decided to support the creation of a Jewish state in 1947 and to recognize Israel in 1948, despite strong opposition from his secretary of state and the legendary Gen. George Marshall, whom Trump has compared to Mattis.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Image: Donald Trump speaking with supporters in Prescott Valley, Arizona. Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore