One Year Later: The Trump Effect in the Middle East
by Matthew RJ Brodsky
Perspectives with Tracy Alexander / i24News
November 8, 2017
Matthew RJ Brodsky joins Tracy Alexander on i24News "Perspectives" for a wide-ranging discussion and review of what Trump's first year has meant for the Middle East peace process, the fight against ISIS, Iran's regional arc of influence, and the recent political developments in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
The segment takes a look back at some of the milestones in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Israel's education minister, Naftali Bennet, describes the new Palestinian unity government as "a national terror government" adding that Israel cannot negotiate with such an entity. He asks rhetorically, "would Americans be willing to deal with any government that had Bin Laden in one of their parties? That's exactly what we're facing today."
Brodsky explains that President Trump had high expectations for the peace process but they weren't realistic given the Palestinian political realities on the ground. However, Israel is far better off with a friend in the White House in Mr. Trump instead of Barack Obama. Last year at this time the Obama administration was hatching a plot to kneecap Israel at the United Nations as a closing blow on the way out of office. (See: Obama Denies U.S. Was Behind the Anti-Israel UN Resolution – So What Happened?)
With the Trump administration, one of the early indicators that the State Department wasn't on the same page as the president came from the row over whether State considered Jerusalem or the Western Wall to be a part of Israel. Nevertheless, the bilateral relationship is stronger than ever under the Trump presidency, even though it hasn't translated into discernible progress on the path to a final peace agreement. (See: Trump's Trip to Israel Built Hope, But May Not Bring Significant Change)
The segment also looks the budding "bromance" between Netanyahu and Trump and one of the habits the Israeli leader picked up -- attacking the media and "fake news." Indeed, 2016 polling shows that trust in the media continues to drop in both countries and reached an all time low in the U.S. at 32%. It was even lower in Israel at 26%.
It's been over three years since the war on ISIS was announced and the segment also looks back at some of those milestones as well. Shifting realities on the ground have benefited Iran and it continues to fill the vacuum left by the defeat of ISIS. If keeping score, Brodsky explains that Trump would receive high marks for his decision to fix or nix the nuclear deal with Iran. Left untouched it set Iran on a glide path towards nuclear weapons. It's too early to tell if efforts to renegotiate key aspects of the agreement will succeed. The president would also score well when it comes to sanctioning Iran and if plans move forward to sanction all of the Revolutionary Guards he will score even higher. The problem remains that he has not done nearly enough to push back on Iran on the ground in Syria and Iraq, or politically in Lebanon or Yemen. That needs to be addressed urgently based on its own merits and would have the added benefit of strengthening his negotiating hand in other Middle East matters.
Regarding Lebanon's Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri's surprise resignation, Brodsky doesn't believe the U.S. was involved with that level of Saudi Arabian decision-making. Nevertheless, he believes the timing of the pressure had more to do with Saudi Arabia than Iran, despite Hariri's public statements. If it were a coordinated attempt by the U.S. it wouldn't have been accompanied by the Pentagon and State Department pledging their continued support for the Lebanese government and its armed forces. Brodsky says that with Hariri's departure, the veneer that the Lebanese state has independent institutions and functions as a democracy has been removed. It is controlled by Iran and Hezbollah, and Hariri understood this a year ago when he accepted the prime ministership.
The Saudi political shake up -- the Saturday Night Massacre -- is a move to consolidate power for Muhammad bin Salam under the guise of battling corruption. He moved to curtail the powers of the religious police, arrested radical preachers, and seeks to modernize the country socially, technologically, and religiously by embracing a form of moderate Islam. As Brodsky explains, it certainly isn't a pathway to democracy but the worst outcome would be if he does not succeed. If his vision comes to fruition, it will very much be in America's interest.