Analysis by Jotam Confino.
Although Trump slammed Saudi Arabia in his election campaign, by stating that “Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays. Hillary must return all money from such countries!” his trip to the Kingdom clearly showed what drives his presidency.
It is not the first time that he has made a complete turnaround with regard to his promises and beliefs. Making Saudi Arabia his first visit abroad shows how he tends to follow a typical US foreign policy when he is drowning in problems at home. Not only does his visit to the Saudi Kingdom control some of the damage his outrage against Muslims caused, it also ‘helps’ him delivering on some of his promises, such as creating jobs and economy growth.
For Trump, it’s all about ‘great deals’, which the military deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars and the Saudi investment in US infrastructure will be labeled as when returns to the US. Further strengthening the alliance with the Gulf States isn’t unusual, nor is the massive arms deal with the Saudis. It’s actually among the few ‘standard’ policies in his chaotic presidency.
A pattern is thus slowly beginning to emerge. When Trump decided to launch missiles at the Assad regime, he was facing numerous problems at home, ranging from his accusations of Obama spying on him, to the links between his staff and Russia. The attack diverted attention from the problems he faced at home, and was hailed among most observers and foreign leaders. Even the media tended to praise his decision to punish the Assad regime. He followed ‘Washington’s playbook’, which according to Obama often tends to be a military solution.
Then came the firing of FBI director Comey, and Trump’s alleged leaks of vital intelligence to the Russians. In the midst of the storm, he took off to Saudi Arabia where he was welcomed like a King, signed a massive arms deal and made up for his hostility towards Muslims. So far, the convenient and well-known US foreign policies have helped Trump when he has been in over his head at home. Using military force abroad has often been used by Presidents to divert attention from personal problems at home, and strengthening ties with vital US allies in the Middle East is likewise a popular move. The rules of the establishment which Trump despises seem to be the ones guiding his actions when he wants to silence his critics.
‘The ultimate deal’
Next on his list is a populistic homerun, which will give Trump the media coverage he needs, namely being a man of peace and a true friend of both Israel and the Palestinians. Fighting for peace in the Middle East has made Presidents Nobel laureates, but it’s also a path where failure is the most likely outcome. At lot has been said about Trump’s short attention span, and brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians requires patience and tolerance.
He has two qualities, however, which can actually change the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. His unpredictable character and cynicism could turn out to be what the past presidents have lacked. Any solution to the conflict presupposes that Washington is ready to strong arm the Israeli government into freezing all settlement constructions, while making the Palestinians realize that they need to give up some of their demands.
Trump doesn’t seem to care too much about what is expected of him as an American president, which is only an advantage when it comes to mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. His administration has been ambiguous, to put it mildly, about crucial things such as moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Trump has people like Sheldon Adelson and his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, whispering in one ear, and the Arab leaders whispering in the other. Assuming that Trump only cares about his own personal achievements, he might end up disappointing Netanyahu and the Israeli right wing.
Moving the embassy to Jerusalem could easily spark a new round of violence and cause Abbas to refuse negotiating with Netanyahu. Judging by the way Trump has treated his own staff so far, no one can feel sure if they stand in the way of his success. If being the President who made ‘the ultimate deal’ means throwing a friendship or two under the bus, so be it. It’s much more important to prove his critics wrong and secure a place in history, than preserving a friendship with Netanyahu or Sheldon Adelson.
Another great advantage for Trump is the Gulf States’ offer of normalizing ties with Israel in return of a settlement freeze. Not only is it a more moderate proposal than the 2002 Saudi initiative which demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, it is also a sign that a regional peace deal may be possible. Trump has already discussed the peace process with Egypt’s President Al-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah, who are both keen on restarting the negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas.
Trump may see foreign relations as business deals, which isn’t far from the truth. As in business, one needs to be incredibly cynical and be willing to step on people occasionally to succeed. The same is bound to happen if he wants to strike the ‘ultimate deal’ between Israel and the Palestinians.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.