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May 15, 2017 2:27 pm

Trump Is Cooking Up a New Middle East

avatar by Arthur Koll

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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Donald Trump at the White House. Photo: White House via YouTube.

US President Donald Trump is breaking with past norms by choosing the Middle East as his first destination for a foreign trip — a development that likely holds important significance for Israel.

Trump will arrive in Saudi Arabia and then go to Israel during his visit to the region next week.

Choosing Saudi Arabia as the first stop stands in stark contrast to the nature of former President Barack Obama’s first visit to the region. Obama came to Cairo, Egypt, to deliver a speech in 2009 that sought to reset relations with the Muslim world. This was soon followed by the “Arab Spring,” which led to the collapse of multiple Middle Eastern states, violence, terrorism and instability. Obama skipped Jerusalem entirely during that tour, sparking a period of high tension with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. 

Trump’s itinerary could not be more different. After visiting Riyadh, he will fly directly to Israel, thereby demonstrating the importance he places on American-Israeli relations, and his focus on strengthening the warm ties between his administration and the Israeli government. 

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The visit to Israel will include important ceremonial components intended to project to the Israeli people that the US remains deeply committed to the security and prosperity of the Jewish state. 

At the same time, it is already clear that Trump is seriously interested in kickstarting negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He has indicated recently that he sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the most difficult to resolve, yet also, as a challenge, one that he might personally seek to solve, by finding the right formula for the ‘big deal,’ to borrow a term from the business world. 

It’s unclear whether Trump believes that a deal is attainable, or whether he thinks that at least it should be tried; what is clear is that Trump is committed to the effort, to an extent far beyond what many on the Israeli right and in the settler movement initially believed. 

Trump has already hosted the Israeli prime minister, and asked him to constrain West Bank settlement construction. Trump also met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, and held prolonged talks with him. During his visit to Israel, Trump will hold a second meeting, apparently in Bethlehem, with Abbas. 

Looking ahead, the key question will be: Is Trump able to jumpstart a diplomatic process in the context of a regional initiative (i.e., with the backing of Sunni powers), or will Trump’s push for peace resemble past efforts, meaning a two-sided Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, with the US acting as the facilitator? 

It seems reasonable to believe that during his trip to Saudi Arabia, and his  meetings with Saudi leaders and other pragmatic Arab officials, Trump will discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and try to recruit support for a big, regional maneuver, based on restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks. 

Trump will arrive in the Middle East with a very large delegation of some 1,000 people, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the assigned Mideast peace broker, Jared Kushner. Trump’s Middle East negotiator, Jason Greenblatt, is already traveling around the area. Unusually, there have been no leaks from any side regarding these efforts. 

All of these signs point to the possibility that ‘something is cooking,’ and that some kind of diplomatic maneuver is taking shape, which could be declared publicly during Trump’s visit. 

Usually, American presidents visit their neighbors — Canada and Mexico — first, but the tensions that exist between Washington and its neighbors, over proposed changes to NAFTA and the anti-immigration border wall, may have led Trump to change course. 

Trump’s choice to come to this region first, as well as his recent actions and statements, indicate that his campaign rhetoric that suggested an embrace of American isolationism is no longer relevant. This is important news for both Jerusalem and the pragmatic Sunni regional players, who share common interests with Israel. All of these countries look to Washington in the hope of receiving US support and leadership in the struggle against the dark forces gaining power in the region.  

Today, it is possible to say with certainty that reality has knocked on Trump’s door, and that the president, despite his original intentions, is dedicating time to international issues, whether they take the form of the North Korea situation, or using military force in response to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack in Syria.

In addition, Trump has stepped back from comments that expressed hostility to NATO, and appears to now be recognizing the vitality of military and political power structures in the Western world — structures that were built over the course of many years, with great effort. These structures led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist world in the 20th century. 

Aside from the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia is designed to strengthen America’ alliance with the axis of Sunni, pragmatic, pro-American states. It also comes as a response to Russia’s presence in Syria, and to the dangerous activities of the radical Iranian-led axis, which includes the Assad regime and Hezbollah. 

Trump will probably seek to create a new regional cooperation bloc to combat extremism, terrorism and violence. This bloc will be a platform dedicated to the objective of restoring stability to the Middle East. To that end, attempts to get Israeli-Palestinian negotiations going again look like they are part of a much larger initiative. 

It appears that this initiative is aimed at returning the US to its traditional leadership role in the Middle East, and to strengthening America’s regional allies, after a lengthy period in which they felt they had no tangible backing from Washington.  

A version of this article was originally published by The Times of Israel.

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