At the 2016 BICOM-Jewish News Policy Conference, ‘UK-Israel Shared Strategic Challenges’, a panel of Middle East experts discussed the incoming Trump administration and what it might mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the region as a whole. Moderator Dr. Sara Hirschhorn, University Research Lecturer in Israel Studies at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies was joined by Washington Institute William Davidson Distinguished Fellow, Ambassador Dennis Ross, Veteran Israeli-Palestinian negotiator and BICOM Senior Visiting Fellow Brig. Gen (res) Michael Herzog, Professor Jonathan Rynhold, Director of the Argov Center for the Study of the Jewish People and the State of Israel in the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan, and Ehud Yaari, Middle East analyst for Israeli Channel 2, and Washington Institute Lafer international fellow. Below is an edited transcript.
Part 1: The Trump Era — prospects and tasks
Sara Hirschhorn: I’m not sure how many of us anticipated Donald Trump’s victory, but his presidency portends a perceivable shift in US relations with the Middle East. The past eight years have been tumultuous in the region. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been nothing but controversial. The Arab Spring swept across the sands of North Africa spreading to Egypt, the Levant and the Gulf, before chilling in a harsh Arab Winter. More interestingly, perhaps, is where the firestorm of the Arab uprising did not spread to — including Palestine.
The cycle of revolt and repression have reached their deadliest climax next door in Syria — where Obama’s red lines are now crimson with the seemingly endless tide of bloodshed and displacement. Meanwhile, the threat of terror has not declined, although jihadis affiliated with ISIS actually heralded the President-elect’s victory with: ‘What we want is that their country be delivered to a donkey like Trump who will destroy it.’
Trump himself said little about the Middle East in the midst of the 2016 election campaign — other than displaying firm opposition to the Iran deal and expressing statements hoping to roll back the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), pledging to ‘knock out ISIS,’ and proposing to put Muslim-Americans on a register. He seemed to take quite an isolationist stance in opposition to nation-building and regime change in his written platforms.
Last but not least, is Israel. Netanyahu and Obama famously got off on the wrong foot early on and despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative in 2012, we are farther from a final status agreement than perhaps ever before. Israeli ultra-nationalism and settlement growth has proceeded unchecked. Some hope Trump will ‘Make Greater Israel Great Again’. With a third intifada on the horizon (if not already underway), the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians seems increasingly unsustainable.
Trump himself has taken a hard line approach to Israel and has openly courted both the hard-line Zionist, and the American-Israeli vote, even going so far as to open a campaign office in the West Bank. He has promised to roll back the Iran deal, move the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and support continued settlement growth. He has also expressed his interest in achieving ‘the ultimate deal’ of Israeli-Palestinian peace by the end of his first term.
With this sad summary of events, please join me in welcoming Ambassador Dennis Ross, who will surely bring decades of wisdom and experience to these questions.
Dennis Ross: I was asked to talk about what President-elect Trump’s policy will be in the Middle East, but I should start by saying I don’t have a clue! The idea that anybody knows exactly what he’ll do in the Middle East as President reflects a kind of hubris, and what is called for is a kind of humility. There are a number of contradictory things he said as a candidate. At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Trump said he’d scrap the JCPOA, but he also said that he would enforce it. So we don’t know what he’ll do and that’s why it makes a lot more sense to understand the context he is going to face.
What I’d rather do is set the context that he is going to face, because reality has a way of imposing itself.
It’s interesting that every single American president from Harry S. Truman to Obama has faced at least one major conflict or crisis in the Middle East. Yet when Trump becomes President, he will face a more challenging Middle East than any other President. He’s going to inherit a war in Syria that has produced half a million dead and 12m refugees; he will likely inherit a situation where the eastern part of Aleppo will be either depopulated or the Syrian regime will be in control and heavily dependent on Shia militias. Al-Raqqa in Syria will still be under ISIS control but it will be under assault. The Syrian conflict is a war against Bashar al-Assad and it’s also a war among the opposition groups against ISIS. If Syria was the only thing he was inheriting, it would be more than enough for one administration.
But President-elect Trump doesn’t face just this threat in Syria. He also faces the situation in Iraq where, shortly after he becomes President, Mosul is likely to be rid of ISIS, or at least the visible parts of ISIS. Here again, what will happen in the aftermath? Will there be Sunni governance and inclusion? Or will we see a reoccurrence of what happened in Fallujah or Ramadi, where the town was taken over by Shia militias and young Sunni males ‘disappeared,’ thus reconstructing the circumstances which helped create ISIS in the first place? One of the challenges that the new Trump administration will face is how to provide governance or reconstruction so that they won’t be facing the next incarnation of ISIS in Iraq.
Together or individually, Syria and Iraq would be huge challenges for any incoming administration and his administration gets to deal with both.
But there is more.
There is the proxy conflict in Yemen between the Saudis and the Iranians. The Iranians are sending weapons and have an interest in bleeding the Saudis there. The Saudis have an interest in not having the equivalent of Hezbollah on its border. I don’t see that conflict going away any time soon.
And there is Egypt, a country of 93 million people which just got an International Monetary Fund loan and has a shortage of rice, sugar and cooking oil. We cannot afford for Egypt to become a failed state. If you think the reality of the Syrian civil war created new challenges for Europe – it certainly created new strains within the European community – imagine what would happen if there is no response to Egypt that stems the potential for it to become a failed state. It may dwarf the consequences of what’s happening in Syria and the implications it has already had. That’s also something the next administration will have to confront.
In addition to all these issues, in the region Iran is using Shia militias as a tool against Sunni Arab governments. So it isn’t only ISIS that threatens the Arab state structure, but also the actions of Iran via its Shia militias. It’s one thing for Trump to say that he will deal with Iran and the nuclear deal. But how he chooses to deal with Syria has implications for how he deals with the larger question of the challenges posed by Iran and its use of Shia militias.
All of that is taking place against the challenges to state structures in the region and struggle over identity. It’s a backdrop that looks pretty daunting to say the least.
Against that backdrop I would identify two assets.
One is the convergence of strategic interests between Israel and the Sunni Arab states. While that convergence has not revealed itself in dramatic, public, tangible forms of cooperation, what we do see is that there are very practical points of cooperation below the radar. That didn’t happen because of the Obama administration but in many events in spite of it – because the convergence of strategic interests was also related to concerns about the Obama administration’s policy. That convergence is an asset which is real even if not visible and it can be very useful in how you contend with Iran and with radical Sunnis. It might also be useful in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
It’s very difficult to see a traditional model of strictly bilateral negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians producing anything substantial. The Palestinians are too weak and divided, not to mention that if they were at the table they couldn’t make any concessions. But maybe with Arab cover something becomes possible. The same is true for Israel. Because Israelis feel that if they want to gain something from concessions it will be through Arab states rather than Palestinians.
There is a very interesting potential transformation – economically, politically and socially – taking place in Saudi Arabia. I was there in August and saw the entire Saudi leadership. One leader said to me: ‘Welcome to our revolution disguised as economic reform.’ Obviously it won’t be a linear progression, and there are very real sources of opposition to it, but the fact is we have a real stake in its success.
There has never been a successful model of development or modernisation in the Arab world. Since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time there have been several pretenders, including secularists and Islamists, who have claimed that they will restore a greatness that has been lost. But none of them could because they didn’t have a practical approach to reconcile modernity with Islam. But here in Saudi Arabia we now see an attempt to do that. And the implications of having a successful model for the first time will not just be felt in Saudi Arabia, but is it something that could be transformative for the region. That is hugely in our interests.
If the new administration recognises both the nature of these daunting problems and how these assets can be utilised to contend with the wider array of issues then that is a positive. Whether or not it will, remains to be seen.
Part 2: Trump and a collapsing Middle East
SH: To borrow a line from Professor Sholmo Avineri, who spoke on an earlier panel, the Middle East is like Humpty Dumpty, unlikely to be put back together again, at least in the same pieces and configuration. As a result of the Arab Spring, the multiple, catastrophic refugee crises, and the dissolution of Syria and Iraq, there is likely to be a redrawing of the map of the Middle East. What can and should President-elect Trump encourage in this map-making exercise? Should a state of Kurdistan come into existence, what would this mean for the future of a state of Palestine and the general redrawing of these borders?
Michael Herzog: As Dennis Ross said, we have to be humble because Trump is very unpredictable and we don’t know exactly what he is going to do in the Middle East. I don’t even think he knows what he is going to do. But when he starts studying the Middle East – and I don’t think he knows much about the region – he is going to discover several things. He recently said that he would like his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to do the impossible deal between Israelis and Palestinians, stating that he is very knowledgeable of the region. Some friends of mine who have met Kushner claim that he knows little about the region. So, he has to learn a lot.
When he begins this learning process he will discover that the region is highly complex, and it’s been in turmoil for six years now. It’s not that easy to fix, unless you are willing to be very assertive, apply military force, and as the Russians have done, find effective partners in the Middle East, and work with them. The track record of the Obama administration on all of these issues has not been that great, and the perception in the Middle East, at least regarding the Obama administration, is rather negative, as we all know.
So those issues are complex, and I think Trump will have to decide how high a priority on his agenda the Middle East will be. There are many international issues to deal with, and in the Middle East you have to prioritise. One of his first priorities will have to be Syria, because the current civil has created millions of refugees and has strategic consequences. Trump will have to manoeuvre. On the one hand, his instinct, as expressed during the campaign, will be to adopt a more isolationist stance for the US. On the other hand, if you want the US to be great again you have to be more assertive internationally. So here he will have to find his way in between the two poles.
Trump and people close to him have expressed certain views about the Middle East, including Trump’s anti-Islamist, anti-jihadist views (and I also assume anti-political Islam, like the Muslim Brotherhood parties). Trump said he would like to develop common ground with Russia in the Middle East. He said he would definitely be a friend of Israel and I assume this will be the case. He also said he would undo the deal with Iran – or at least enforce it more strictly than the Obama administration has done. And it seems that his administration will care less about human rights than the Obama administration did. Taken together, Trump is going to discover that there will be a lot of tensions within these policy lines.
I’ll give you several examples. To develop common ground with Russia you have to give them certain things as well. Will he do this or not? To be assertive with Iran and enforce the deal – and I assume not only the deal but also vis-à-vis Iran’s destabilising policies in the Middle East – you may find yourselves opposing Russia at the same time that you want to develop common ground with them.
Trump will also find that some of the US allies are fighting between themselves. Both Turkey and the Kurds are supportive of defeating ISIS, yet they are sworn enemies. Which leads me to your question about Kurdish independence, Sara; I don’t see great chances for a Kurdish state emerging because all the states involved in this – mainly Iraq, Iran and Turkey – are against statehood. But there are prospects for an autonomous Kurdish region emerging in Syria. It already exists, although the Turks would like to wipe it out. But maybe one of the outcomes of a US-Russia deal would be some kind of decentralised system in Syria, which includes Kurdish autonomy. In this scenario, the only realistic policy outcome for Turkey is to hope it will not be contiguous along their borders.
But in general, when Trump looks deeper in the Middle East he will find it is much more complex than that which meets the eye.
Ehud Yaari: When Trump and his team take a look at potential allies in the Middle East, they don’t see much, Israel aside. They do not see a reliable, dependable, stable Sunni regional ally that they can form a real partnership with. Ross mentioned Egypt, and rightly so. Can you imagine the implosion that can take place in Egypt? As a senior Egyptian official told me, 90m people live along a sewage canal. There is Algeria, which is probably next, when 79-year-old Abdelaziz Bouteflika (President since 1999) finally leaves the scene. I’m not sure how stable a country like Saudi Arabia is, which is controlled by a 31-year-old prince who is waging war in Yemen. He’s very impressive, as Ross said, and they are trying to go for real reforms, if not a revolution. But in the long run, Saudi Arabia runs the risk of fragmentation. I’m not so sure Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey is a dependable, reliable ally. And my conclusion is – as if I’m saying I have a clue how Trump will act in the Middle East – that he will try to minimise the damage, to contain the mess in the ‘Muddle East’ rather than fix it.
This overall approach will leave quite a large room to manoeuvre for the Middle Eastern players. I think that the most important trend emerging now – currently taking place though proxies – is the emerging competition between Turkey and Iran. How does the new administration tackle this? I don’t know how far Erdogan is willing to go in order to prevent contiguity of the Kurdish enclave of Rojava in northern Syria. I’m not sure how he views Mosul. But remember: Erdogan said that the 1923 Lausanne Agreement is not in place. And Turkish newspapers show in their maps that Aleppo and Mosul are part of Turkey. I’m not saying it’s the official government policy, but it is a direction. That could be a challenge for the new administration.
Part 3: Trumpian instincts, Kissengerian lessons
Jonathan Rynhold: Instead of looking at what’s going on in the region, we should look at Trump’s strategic instincts. It’s clear there are plenty of contradictions, no cohesion and lack of understanding of details. But there was one thing in the campaign that he was very clear and consistent about. That is this strategic mixture of being assertive, willing to use military force unilaterally, not being so interested in allies, questioning NATO, and giving the Russians a free hand in Ukraine and Syria. But also saying we’ll crush ISIS and crush Iran if it goes nuclear. It is a mixture of isolationism, economic protectionism, and assertiveness. And this has not been seen at the heart of American grand-strategy since 1941, before Pearl Harbour. In the 1930s, such a strategic mix existed, both among Republicans and Democrats. The academic Walter Russell Mead, editor of The American Interest, called this Jacksonianism after Andrew Jackson, the 19th century American president.
And so for me the question is, if these instincts translate into something that informs policy, what does this mean for the Middle East? And if they don’t, what would be the alternative for a Republican administration?
Some of the potential answers we have already heard. In Syria there is a contradiction in allowing the Russians to do what they want and also being assertive vis-à-vis Iran. Because, if the Russians are allowed a free hand in Syria, then it provides an umbrella over the Iranians, who are the strongest external force on the ground in those areas under al-Assad’s control. This allows Iranian power to grow, and if a time comes where the US wishes to be assertive, the price it will pay will be much higher. If the US intends to break the agreement and impose unilateral sanctions, it should realise that unilateral sanctions are meaningless vis-à-vis Iran. So if the US is not prepared to use force, it does not have a coherent policy on those issues.
On the issue of Israel and the Palestinians, if the US, as the ideological right in Israel believes, decides to let Israel do what it wants, one of the consequences – given the lack of stability in the Palestinian Authority (PA), the fact that Mahmoud Abbas is 81 and that there will be a struggle over the leadership in the foreseeable future – could well be that the currency in such a leadership struggle will become how many Israelis can you kill? Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation would collapse. It’s very interesting that the Israeli centre-right – the non-ideological right – is not so sure that it’s keen on Trump. Netanyahu signed a $38bn military aid deal with Obama, which is on worse terms than previous deals. Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman – no liberal – says maybe Israel should have a settlement freeze outside of the settlement blocs. From an Israeli centre-right perspective, an America that strategically takes a step backwards creates a vacuum which is either filled by greater instability, by forces less friendly to Israel and America’s Arab allies, or by forces which are downright hostile to them. This would create quite a dangerous dynamic. And such a strategy might also create an even more dangerous dynamic in the Baltic States, which are NATO allies.
The alternative to this is not Andrew Jackson but Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was a Republican who had to deal with the fact that, post-Vietnam, the US was not going to be directly globally engaged by deploying ground forces all over the world. No more could there be 500,000 US troops in Asia. What did Kissinger do to resolve this? He did not turn into an isolationist, but instead put more emphasis on American allies. The US continues to be internationalist, to do selective engagement, to assert itself where its vital interests are at stake, but not everywhere and in every situation. And actually, it’s during this period, 1970-75, in which the US was withdrawing its forces globally and simultaneously supplying more arms and giving political and strategic support to its allies, that the US-Israel strategic relationship really took off in terms of military aid and security coordination.
There was a crisis of confidence throughout the world in the era of Obama, in which all American allies – in the Middle East, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia particularly – were asking themselves how reliable the US really was. The one thing that a Trump administration could do is to look at the Kissinger model and say, ‘If I want to be assertive and internationalist but without invading every second country, then this is a model I need to adopt.’ And that means working through and reassuring your allies.
DR: One thing that no one has mentioned is that clues to what President Trump will actually do could be provided by who he appoints. We haven’t seen his nomination for Secretary of State or Secretary of Defence yet. In a book he wrote, national security advisor Michael Flynn said he views Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia as being the core American allies who we should do much more with because he sees them as the key to confronting the radical Islamic threat. By the way, he defines the threat of radical Islam as Sunni and Shi’a. So we’ll see if that’s an indication. We have to wait, but this relates to Rynhold’s notion of the Kissingerian alternative. It depends who the secretaries of state and defence will be, and how Trump defines his role as President. Will he be the equivalent of chairman of the board, in which he delegates a lot? Is the fact that the Vice President is the one getting the daily national security briefings an indication of how this administration is going to work? If that’s the case then those appointments become even more important, and will be more of an indication of what he will do.
It is very clear Trump’s instinct is not to be a nation-builder. But collectively, one thing we have probably learned in the US is that we’re not good at nation-building. And therefore that shouldn’t be a preoccupation. But not being good at nation-building doesn’t mean that the US should stay out of the Middle East, because vacuums that emerge in the Middle East will be filled by the worst possible forces and end up being a threat to the country. So, humility should still be the order of the day in terms of how much we are prepared to predict what the Trump administration will actually do.
Part 4: Trump and Israel-Palestine
SH: That brings us to our next question: the peace process. Trump says he wants to conclude the ‘ultimate deal’ in the Middle East, and says he intends to appoint his son-in-law Jared Kushner – a ‘renowned expert’ on Israeli and Arab affairs – to lead this. Yet the platform of the Republican Party explicitly denied that Israel is occupying the West Bank. Statements issued during the campaign, mostly crafted by his advisors David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, who will apparently be a part of his Israel transition team, don’t envisage a two-state solution. What does the panel think the prospects are for a two-state solution? Could the Trump presidency encourage Israel to annex Area C? This has been a topic of debate that has moved over the last few years from the fringes of the Israeli political spectrum into the mainstream.
DR: The question is how does one square what Trump says? He has said that he ‘would love to be the one to be able to produce peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians,’ and that he has reason to believe he can be the one to do it. How does that square with annexing Area C and with ruling out a two-state outcome? If Trump is thinking in terms of a deal, then some of the positions that might have been in the Republican platform may not seem to be consistent with what seems to be his aspiration. Again, I’ll say that this actually puts him within the mainstream of American presidents. Having written a book about this, I can say that almost every American president saw themselves as a peacemaker on this issue, for a variety of different reasons. So, this is not what separates Trump from his predecessors but rather makes him more like his predecessors.
MH: Firstly, I believe that when the Trump administration takes a hard look at the Middle East and prioritises issues, the Israeli-Palestinian issue will not be at the top of the list. There are more pressing issues, such as Syria and Iran. Strategically, I do not think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be a major issue that the administration will invest political capital in. If Trump does try to do that, it will only be out of a psychological desire to show that he can do the impossible, as he is a dealmaker. But that is still not a strategic reason to prioritise this deal.
Secondly, talking about a bilateral Israeli-Palestinian agreement runs against the current of the Middle East today. Following the 2014 collapse of the peace negotiations, nobody – Israelis, Palestinians or Arab states – believe that you can get the two parties around a table and produce anything. It is very hard to see a deal being forced in this climate.
However, because Israel has exceptional dialogue with major Arab countries such as Egypt and the Gulf States, if a regional framework for peacemaking presents itself – it will be difficult and the window will not be open forever – I think Trump will support it. There is also a chance that the Israeli government will get on board in such a regional approach. This has actually been the subject of discussion between the parties for many months now – though it is very difficult and the window will not be open indefinitely.
As the Arab saying goes: ‘There are no customs [taxes] on words.’ In other words, you can say anything during a campaign, but when you have to make policy decisions, it is far more difficult. There is a chance of a scenario along the lines of what Lieberman said, that Israel will adopt some sort of regional approach and Trump can support it. Generally speaking, I think Trump will consult with the Israeli government rather than just impose a deal on them out of the blue. That pertains to other regional issues we discussed, such as the regional allies which Yaari mentioned, and I generally agree with him. When the administration consults with the Israeli government, they will be told that investing in Egypt, which is a critical ally, is essential. If I had to predict, I think the administration will listen.
JR: Given that it’s very unlikely we can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in bilateral negotiations in the near future, what I would like to see is thinking about what can be practically done in order to improve the situation and to stop it getting worse. I’d like to avoid neglect, on the one hand, and the typical presidential belief that they can do what nobody else has done before them, on the other.
The ‘settlement freeze outside the blocs’ idea was not popular under the Obama administration, which in principle believed that settlements were a final status issue and that one shouldn’t make distinctions between different settlements. I’m sure that is absolutely right in principle, but it will only contribute to the situation getting worse in practice. It is very interesting that of all Israeli politicians, it is Lieberman that has picked this up.
Here lies the advantage – and potentially an opportunity – of having a president who doesn’t have set views and doesn’t really care what the standard operating procedures of international diplomacy are. I think there might be an opportunity to do something on the settlement issue, and this is where Area C becomes relevant. Area C is critical for partition, and if one believes that partition is a vital interest for the State of Israel, then changing the status of Area C would be a critical moment.
There are two options the Israeli government could pursue in Area C. It could annex it, thereby killing the two-state solution. Or it could change civilian control from Israel to the Palestinians. This doesn’t involve touching settlers, nor does it involve security, but it signals a direction – in terms of Israel’s credible commitment to two states or partition in some form or another.
On the Palestinian side I’d like to see if there is another Salam Fayyad, or another Palestinian who can actually improve the situation on the ground. I don’t know whether that is possible, and it’s probably something that Trump is much less likely to do, but I would like to see a search.
DR: Rynhold’s point regarding the Obama administration and the non-differentiation of settlements is exactly right. And it was also a contradiction within the administration itself. President Obama made two speeches in May 2011 where he talked about [a future border as] ‘1967 and mutually agreed swaps’. The reason that is significant is that it fits with what Lieberman is saying. When you say ‘1967 and mutually agreed swaps,’ then, by definition, you are creating a distinction between settlements. ‘Mutually agreed swaps’ refers to settlement blocs. Going back to the Camp David Summit [in July 2000], we were talking about 1967 and mutually agreed swaps – seven blocs where you might accommodate 80 per cent of the settlers and then swapping territory as some kind of compensation. The whole notion of talking about 1967 and mutually agreed swaps, without distinguishing between certain settlements beyond the 4 June 1967 lines, is an inherent contradiction.
EY: There is no grand deal to be made. Unfortunately, many years ago the Palestinians took the decision that a ‘statelet’ within the 1967 borders with its capital as Jerusalem is not what the Palestinian national movement is about. And for such a statelet, it is not worth paying the price of the necessary concessions and compromises of refugees, Jerusalem etc. As Ahmed Khalidi said: ‘The whole concept of a Palestinian state is nothing but a punitive construct devised by the worst enemies of the Palestinian people – the US and Israel, in order to restrain Palestinian territorial aspirations and their moral claim.’
I have spent my entire life in ‘no man’s land’ between Israelis and Palestinians and I’m no spring chicken. I do not know any Palestinian who sees this ‘statelet’ as the objective of the Palestinian movement. So I do not believe there will be any movement, except maybe further fragmentation of the PA. Do PA battalions enter the refugee camps in the West Bank? Not really. Can they win armed confrontation with the well-armed Tanzim of Fatah? Once Abbas is gone, I am not sure. People have rightly been talking about security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinian security organisations. But the Palestinian security services are responsible for around 25 per cent of arrests, and are only working part-time. They may run a grocery store on the side.
The only way to get things moving and to prevent the slippery slope towards one state is for Israel to take the initiative. Israel should whisper in the ear of the next president that we are willing to accept a very generous, comprehensive interim agreement and we want nothing in return. It would include 80 per cent of the West Bank and gradual implementation. Israel doesn’t need recognition but only to ensure security arrangements and freedom of action for Israel’s Defence Forces (IDF) and the Shin Bet. We know that Abbas doesn’t like the word interim and doesn’t want anything ‘provisional’. But, would he have a choice if Israel made this offer via the US, the UK, the EU, Japan and other states? They would come to Abbas and tell him to accept it.
I’ll finish with something on Egypt. [Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi will not draw up and negotiate a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. He doesn’t have the gravitas in his own country to do this. But if we make gradual progress with the Palestinians, we can work on a deal with the Arabs according to the Arab Peace Initiative. The Arab Peace Initiative promised Israel normalisation and recognition in return for an ‘end of conflict and finality of claims’ deal with the Palestinians. I believe that gradual normalisation with simultaneous gradual progress on the Palestinian front is the only option. But, I don’t think the initiative will be taken by a Trump administration, nor do think it will come from Israel, given the present configuration of the coalition.
Is the US still the indispensable nation?
SH: Picking up your term, ‘the slippery slope,’ without the US playing sheriff in the Middle East, will the region’s slide towards chaos only accelerate? Could an isolationist Trump administration lead to the European powers, Russia and Iran creating their own spheres of influence in the region and taking a more active role in the Middle East, and Israel-Palestine in particular?
DR: With regards to others taking a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian issue its worth looking at the first term of the George W. Bush administration. They completely walked away from peace-making and left it wide-open for anyone else to step in, but did they? Who would play that role or even has the ability to? It’s a rhetorical question. I don’t see anybody else being able to play that role. The US hasn’t actively prevented others from taking this on. When I was a negotiator I used to get complaints from people in Europe, saying that I was ‘preventing them’. But, it was not me but the parties that prevented them. So it is not a question of whether others can play the role. The French have been trying all year, and it doesn’t look promising.
Regarding the first part of your question about spheres of influence, it depends on who comes in, and how they define what the threat is. Rynhold was right to look at Trump’s past language – rather than his behaviour as we don’t know what that will be like yet. We could also look at [outspoken Republican Senator from Idaho and known isolationist] Senator William Borah and the terminology from historians of ‘belligerent isolationism,’ i.e. the US will be active in the world, but only on our terms. We don’t know whether this administration will be like that or not. It depends on how they define threats and on whether it thinks it has to act. I believe there will be an impulse to not want to carry the entire burden. When Trump was critical of NATO, he was raising questions about what commitments the US made. He made the same comments about Japan and [South] Korea. Once he is President, he will have to look at the threats, and see who helps us with them, and I suspect his views will look different. He may still try to see if he can leverage greater contributions from others, but he will find that he cannot leverage without the US playing the role. If he appoints some of the names that are being suggested, the more traditional US role of being actively engaged will continue to be the norm. But we will soon find out – that might be wrong.
MH: I doubt the US will invite other international actors to enter the Israeli-Palestinian arena for the reason Ross outlined. I don’t think Israel is interested in any other international party and would try to prevent their involvement. Israel is open to major Arab states playing a role and that might happen if Trump decides to play a role which could be part of that regional axis. The idea is not that the Arabs will come out with a new peace initiative. It is that they will open space for both Israelis and Palestinians to move ahead. They will give Israel measures of normalisation that will open the Israeli government to deal more with the Palestinians. And they will also legitimise certain Palestinian moves.
I don’t think European states or Russia will play a role. When Russia invited both parties to meet in Moscow it did not materialised into anything. Both parties said yes, but it simply hasn’t happened.
I do see the possibility of the US trying to find common ground with Russia on other Middle East issues, especially on Syria. If I had to speculate I would say that Trump would try to reach such a deal, where he allows Russia to continue to play their role and legitimises it and al-Assad stays for the time being. Whether he would be more assertive vis-à-vis Iran is anybody’s guess.
JR: The US is more powerful than the next four or five military countries put together. By way of an example, the US has ten aircraft carriers. Russia has one, and it doesn’t work properly. There is no alternative to the US. China is a regional power not a global power, and needs the US navy to protect energy supplies from the Middle East to reach them in China. They would like to change that, but they can’t do it right now. In other words, if other powers do come in, it is only because the US has taken a step backwards.
However, even though there is no alternative to US involvement, that doesn’t mean the US can simply force the parties to reach an agreement that will sustain itself beyond the moment where the Americans shake hands with both sides. I suspect that Yaari is right: Israel has to be the only grown-up in the room, and sort it out.
But could an American president change the balance of probability that an Israeli government promoting these ideas be formed? We recently had negotiations between leader of the Labor Party Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and I understand there wasn’t such a wide gap between them, but they couldn’t quite get their parties together. If a US president commits to back Israel on what it agrees on, that might make it much easier to form a different kind of government, which might possibly, if we want to be optimistic, lead to a different kind of dynamic.
EY: Regarding Syria, I think the way a non-trigger happy Israeli Prime Minister played the civil war was probably a grave mistake. We, as well as perhaps the Jordanians, could have helped change the balance of power in Southern Syria by doing a, b and c. Israel’s choice was not to do anything. What do we do if, after victory in East Aleppo, the Russian air force switches to Southern Syria? What do we do if they crush the rebels there, which won’t be very difficult, and subsequently pave the way for Iranian militias and Hezbollah to position themselves securely along the Golan Heights’s border? It is our job to get involved.
Remember that before the State of Israel was declared in 1948, the Arab affairs department of the Jewish agency was involved in politics all over the region. Golda Meir went to meet King Abdullah of Transjordan. They met the president of Syria, the prime minister in Egypt, and so on. They were active and played the regional game. We Israelis had the experience of the first Lebanon War in 1982 in which [then Defence Minister Ariel] Sharon goes to Beirut, and fails to change Lebanon and have his own man installed as President. Since then, Israelis behave and conduct themselves as if our fingers were burned so we will not try again. My opinion – this is a big mistake.
SH: I want to thank our panel.