Trump’s Middle East strategy is bound to fail

Making Palestinians pay for an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran spells disaster for the US and its Arab allies.

Kushner in Warsaw Reuters
Earlier this month, Jared Kushner, adviser to US President Donald Trump, embarked on a special diplomatic trip across the Middle East to promote his peace plan for Palestine [Kacper Pempel/Reuters]

Just a week after attending what was largely seen as “anti-Iran” conference in Warsaw earlier this month, Jared Kushner, senior adviser to US President Donald Trump, embarked on a special diplomatic trip across the Middle East to promote and fundraise for his peace plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Unsurprisingly, on his tour of the region, he brought along US Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook.

The Warsaw meeting and Kushner’s Middle East trip reflect what seems to be a key foreign policy pillar of the Trump administration which links the much-awaited “deal of the century” to the formation of an Arab-Israeli anti-Iran alliance.

The expectations of the White House are that the Arabs would sign off on Kushner’s deal, normalise relations with the Israelis and work with them to deter Iran. That is why, while many observers saw the Warsaw conference as a failure, since it did not convince European allies to fully back US anti-Iranian regime policies, the Trump administration saw it as a success, having brought together Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and representatives of several Arab countries on the same table.

However, this rather myopic foreign policy strategy for the Middle East ignores important realities on the ground and is, therefore, doomed to fail.

A defiant Iran

Since he moved into the White House in January 2017, Trump has made it a point to systematically undo the Iran policies that his predecessor had put in place.

President Barack Obama believed the US should not confront Iran on behalf of Arab allies and sought to engage Tehran. His administration increased pressure through international sanctions and at the same time pushed for dialogue.

Between 2014 and 2016, the US and Iran tacitly worked together to fight the common threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) by backing the governments of Iraq and Lebanon while avoiding confrontation in Syria. The engagement effort with Iran culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which obviously did not please Israel and Saudi Arabia.

After Trump took power, he withdrew from the JCPOA and re-imposed tough sanctions on Iran, seeking to pressure Tehran into concessions on its ballistic missiles programme and its regional activities. But so far, the escalation has only made Iran more defiant.

The Iranian regime has repeatedly made it clear that it is not willing to negotiate under the present terms. Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei said recently that his regime talking to the US in the current context is like “going on your knees before the enemy”.

Despite the Trump administration’s escalation against Iran, the Obama-era rules of engagement remain in place in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where the US continues to avoid direct confrontation with Iranian forces and proxies.

However, the ongoing psychological war is fuelling paranoia in Tehran, which increases the risk of a miscalculation. If Washington and Tehran continue pushing the envelope, their proxies would be the ones who pay the price.

A cornered Iranian regime could easily become a spoiler for US policies in the Middle East. It could motivate its assets in Gaza to act against Israel or force the hands of the Iraqi and Lebanese governments to take action against US interests.

Subversive Iranian activity might not only weaken US allies in the region but also sabotage US efforts to advance Palestinian-Israeli talks.  

A shaky Arab-Israeli normalisation endeavour

Trump has also reversed the long-standing US policy on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. His administration is now pushing to break a basic Arab policy principle, which ties normalisation with Israel to a fair Israeli-Palestinian deal that recognises a viable Palestinian state, provides for Israel’s withdrawal to 1967 borders and settles the status of Jerusalem. US Arab allies want a deal that meets these basic requirements; anything short of that would be difficult to sell at home.

Arab leaders remain uncomfortable with official normalisation with Israel given that the Arab public remains sensitive to the idea of them cosying up to Israel. Popular unrest can easily erupt across the Arab world if Arab leaders endorse a Palestinian-Israeli deal perceived as flawed.

Recognising this danger, Saudi King Salman recently took back the Palestine portfolio from his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and restored Riyadh’s long-standing position on the Palestinian issue. This stance was conveyed in an interview on February 13 by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud with Israeli Channel 13, which hinted that Saudi Arabia is waiting with open arms for Israel if and when it makes a fair deal with the Palestinians.

The other risk Arab leaders face in undertaking premature normalisation with Israel is that the Trump administration might not be willing in return to go beyond words and sanctions in deterring Iran in the region.

A Palestinian quagmire

However, the core challenge to Arab-Israeli normalisation and anti-Iran coalition-building remains the Palestinian question.

Jared Kushner has put together a peace deal which might be unveiled in April after the Israeli general elections. The so-called “deal of the century” is arguably the first attempt at resolving the conflict in which the Palestinian side was not informed or consulted.

What is interesting about this plan is its approach to Palestinian politics. After Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, the Bush administration’s policy was to punish the strip by blocking all aid while simultaneously assisting the Palestinian Authority to showcase a model of how the West Bank can prosper when it abides by international norms and accepts negotiations with Israel.

Trump is reversing this approach by punishing the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank for refusing to accept the “deal of the century” after he moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Simultaneously, the White House is enticing Hamas with funding for major economic projects in Gaza, which like the approach of the Bush administration, encourages Palestinian divisions instead of strengthening Palestinian unity.

Trump needs a unified Palestinian front to put a stamp of approval on the peace plan his son-in-law is proposing, but both Fatah and Hamas are invested in the divide between the West Bank and Gaza and see a possible reunification under the deal as detrimental to their interests.

Although the full provisions of the deal have not been yet disclosed, the details already known to the public indicate that it will not uphold the best interests of the Palestinians.

In an interview for Emirati channel Sky News Arabia broadcast on February 25, Kushner stated: “if you can eliminate the border and have peace and less fear of terror, you could have freer flow of goods, freer flow of people and that would create a lot of opportunities.”

What his cryptic declaration means is that the weaker Palestinian economy will become further integrated into the Israeli one, making Palestinians even more dependent on the Israeli state, which will retain full control over security and hence its ability to repress Palestinian political dissent.

Thus, Trump is linking the Arab-Israeli normalisation and deterrence of Iran to a Palestinian-Israeli deal on terms, which would institutionalise Israeli control over the Palestinian territories and have disastrous consequences for Palestinians.

Having the Palestinians pay for the Arab-Israeli alliance will likely spell trouble for Arab leaders down the road. It might undermine the deterrence of Tehran by boosting the popularity of the Iranian regime in the region and further delegitimise already weakened Arab regimes.

In this sense, the Trump administration’s strategy of linking a flawed Israeli-Palestinian deal to an Arab-Israeli alliance to deter Iran might undermine these two US objectives in the Middle East and might even backfire against US allies and interests in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.