February 20, 2017
No matter where, transitions have their understandable ups and downs. Yet, it is clear that what Washington is currently experiencing is more than that. Some call it “chaos”, “turmoil” while others reject such labels reflecting America’s polarization. All things considered, the resignation/firing of President’s national security adviser Michael Flynn and labor secretary nominee Andrew Puzder’s withdrawal from consideration cannot be categorized as routine ups and downs. The Russia dimension of the controversy regarding General Flynn aside, these are America’s domestic issues. Nonetheless, the world including the Middle East will draw conclusions.
Other than King Abdullah’s brief meeting with President Trump, Mr. Netanyahu was the fourth foreign leader to arrive in Washington for an official visit after prime ministers May, Abe and Trudeau. Particularly in view of his differences with the Obama administration, Mr. Netanyahu’s joint press conference with President Trump could only overshadow the previous three.
The President started his remarks by reiterating that one of the worst deals he had seen was the Iran nuclear deal. He then stated that he rejects the “unfair and one-sided actions at the United Nations” that target Israel. He was referring to UN Security Council Resolution 2334. Looking at Mr. Netanyahu, he said:
“As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out. But I would like to see a deal be made. I think a deal will be made…
In response to questions he further said:
“So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.
“I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.
“As far as the embassy moving to Jerusalem, I’d love to see that happen. We’re looking at it very, very strongly. We’re looking at it with great care — great care, believe me. And we’ll see what happens. Okay?”
Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared to be thoroughly enjoying the press conference which provided him with a great opportunity to expose Iran and the Palestinians and also show the world that the new administration in Washington is solidly behind him. Mr. Trump mentioned “terrorism” and “terrorist acts”. Mr. Netanyahu in a display of support to the President went further and referred to “radical Islamic terror”, “tide of radical Islam” and “militant Islam”. And, he tried to project the Netanyahus and the Trumps as one big family. There wasn’t much that was new in his remarks. It was the venue and the company that was important.
For a majority of Middle East analysts, the surprise was Mr. Trump’s upending of the US position on the two-state-vision. Indeed, Mr. Trump has been in office only for a month. He is not known to have a wealth of experience on foreign relations. His senior foreign and security policy advisers have barely had an opportunity to forge a team. Yet, just as he defied the Iran nuclear deal signed by the P5+1, Mr. Trump was able to discard in a flash the two-state-vision supported for decades by consecutive US administrations and others as reflected in UN Security Council Resolution 2334. As for the future, at first the President was brief:
“… Bibi and I have known each other a long time — a smart man, great negotiator. And I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand. That’s a possibility. So let’s see what we do…”
But after Prime Minister Netanyahu mentioned a great opportunity for peace coming from a regional approach, from involving Israel’s newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace and peace with the Palestinians, Mr. Trump said:
“And we have been discussing that, and it is something that is very different, hasn’t been discussed before. And it’s actually a much bigger deal, a much more important deal, in a sense. It would take in many, many countries and it would cover a very large territory. So I didn’t know you were going to be mentioning that, but that’s — now that you did, I think it’s a terrific thing and I think we have some pretty good cooperation from people that in the past would never, ever have even thought about doing this. So we’ll see how that works…”
The deal which President Trump said would cover many countries and a very large territory has been described by some analysts as the “outside-in” approach. In other words, Israel and Arab countries particularly the Gulf states, with support from Egypt and Jordan already enjoying diplomatic relations with Israel, would launch a process to normalize relations with Israel and this would help pave the way for the settlement of the Palestinian question. The countries Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to as Israel’s “newfound Arab partners” are the Sunni Gulf states which seem to share Israel’s perception of the Iranian threat. However, this perception by itself is unlikely to lead to a fundamental shift in their position on the question of Palestine. So, what the President defined as “pretty good cooperation from people that in the past would never, ever have even thought about doing this” represents in concrete terms remains to be seen. Last week, Egypt’s foreign ministry denied reports of a proposal to establish a Palestinian state in Sinai, saying that the idea had never been a point of discussion between any Egyptian and foreign officials and that Egypt remains committed to the two-state solution. The approach advocated by Mr. Netanyahu gives the impression of aiming at normalizing relations with all Arab states and weakening international support for the two-state-vision, leaving open the possibility for a statelike Palestinian entity with restricted sovereignty. If, however, both the two-state-solution and normalization of relations between Israel and Arab countries were to become reality at the end of a realistic and result-oriented negotiation process that would be a different story.
It appears that this approach was taken up between Secretary Tillerson and French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Munich. According to Reuters, this is what the latter said after the meeting:
“I wanted to remind him after the meeting between Donald Trump and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu that in France’s view there are no other options other than the perspective of a two-state solution and that the other option which Mr. Tillerson brought up was not realistic, fair or balanced.”
European countries insist on progress on the basis of the two-state-vision because they see this as one of the more effective ways of confronting radical ideologies and terrorist organizations across the broad Middle East. And, this may not be the only issue on which they disagree with the Trump administration. European countries, while remaining committed to strict implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, would prefer to avoid what they would perceive as unnecessary escalation in relations with Tehran.
Last Thursday, President Trump once again said that having a reset with Russia will be good not only for America but also the world. Following his meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Secretary Tillerson stated that the United States will consider working with Russia where the two countries can find areas of practical cooperation that will benefit the American people. And he said:
“Where we do not see eye to eye, the United States will stand up for the interests and values of America and her allies. As we search for new common ground, we expect Russia to honor its commitment to the Minsk agreements and work to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine.”
In the light of statements by the Trump administration on relations with Russia, some observers have raised the possibility of “transactional cooperation” with Moscow. If this proves to be the case, the first test will be forging a united front against Daesh and containing the Syrian conflict. And, reconciling such cooperation with the diverse and conflicting interests of regional countries would be quite a challenge in itself.