Trump: The American Netanyahu

On Iran and the Middle East, the Trump administration is following Israel’s playbook.

Trump Netanyahu
US President Donald Trump and Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a proclamation recognising Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights on March 25, 2019 [File: Reuters/Leah Millis]

Supporters of Donald Trump think of the US president as an exceptional one-of-a-kind force of nature – a sui generis leader. His detractors like to compare him to Russian President Vladimir Putin or describe him as a Putin stooge, and since he ordered the “vengeful” or “reckless” assassination of Iranian General Qassim Solemani, some have likened him to a Middle Eastern despot. But a more pertinent comparison lies elsewhere.

Since taking office in January 2017, Trump’s dramatic positions and pronouncements on the Middle East and beyond have shocked and dismayed much of the US foreign policy establishment, especially on three main challenges facing the US in the region: security, diplomacy and democracy and human rights.  

Trump has not only undone much of his predecessor’s legacy, both domestically and internationally, he also trashed Barack Obama’s doctrine and policies in favour of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s. For the past three years, he has been re-coupling US and Israeli strategies, especially towards Iran and the global “war on terror” which Obama spent eight years decoupling.

This is not to say, Obama was not a staunch supporter of Israel and defender of its “security” or was not trigger happy with the US drone assassination programme. He certainly was. He just did not like Netanyahu and did not appreciate his deceit.

Obama tried to pursue an independent US policy free from Israel’s narrow constraints and considerations, after eight years of the Bush administration’s wars and blunders in the region.

By contrast, Trump embraced all things Netanyahu as soon as he stepped into the White House.

It helped that the two men have far more in common than meets the eye.

Eerie similarities

Both men are thrice married with a history of adultery, are facing charges for misusing their office for personal gain, and have a problematic relationship with the truth.

And yet, both Netanyahu and Trump remain all too popular with their right-wing base.

Even religious fanatics, both in Israel and the US, consider these two secular, undevout, and morally challenged leaders as God’s vessels on earth. 

Both are able showmen, who have pursued, and mastered, populist, theatrical and divisive policies that have rallied their rightist constituencies around their populist personas.

But most importantly in this context, Trump has pursued the same ultra-nationalist securitarian, some say racist, agendas that Netanyahu has long championed in Israel and the Middle East.

This is especially important today, as both commanders-in-chief are exploiting foreign policy to deflect attention from their domestic troubles with the law.

Embracing Netanyahu’s positions

Trump’s knowledge of the Middle East was dismal prior to taking office. He was an empty page ready to be filled, but only with the ideas which helped guide and propel his presidential campaign towards victory, such as infringements on rights of immigrants and minorities, a ban on Muslims travelling to the US, and all things anti-Obama.

A number of Middle Eastern despots like those of Egypt and the UAE did try to fill in some of the blanks. But no one had the ability, style, record, and diligence of Netanyahu, who also enjoyed unfiltered access to the president-elect through his three ultra-Zionist lieutenants, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman. 

First among these ideas, was the radical departure from a quarter of a century of US policy towards Israel and Palestine, namely moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, accepting the legitimacy of the illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian lands, abandoning the two-state solution, and recognising Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

It is Netanyahu’s dream come true.

Trump also embraced Netanyahu’s view on the Arab world in support of friendly despots and dictators and against democracy and human rights. He aligned US policy toward the Gulf and Arab affairs with the interests of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt and embraced Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite his reckless policies domestically and regionally – all in the hope of paving the way for Arab normalisation of relations with “colonial” Israel.

Another Netanyahu dream come true.

Attacking Iran

Nowhere was Netanyahu’s influence on Trump more pronounced than on Iran.

The Trump administration abandoned the Iran nuclear deal against the advice and urging of its NATO allies, Russia and China.

It then pursued a punitive policy of containment through tough economic sanctions, an option unavailable to Israel, in order to strong-arm Iran into a humiliating new deal that not only bans all its nuclear activity, but also curtails its military and regional outreach.

When maximum pressure did not produce the desired results, as Iran continued its bellicose regional policies, Trump adopted both Netanyahu’s means and endgame, starting with the assassination of Soleimani, widely seen as a “declaration of war” with untold consequences for the region.

Israel has been carrying out targeted killings and preemptive strikes against Iranian targets in Syria; in 2013, it was accused of being behind the killing of another Revolutionary Guard general, Hassan Shateri.

To be clear, Trump did not order the assassination to avenge the killings of countless Syrians and Iraqis; he did so to deter Iran from escalating its attacks on US interests and allies.

Although Netanyahu tried to distance himself from the targeted assassination of the Iranian general in Iraq, make no mistake, this is a third Netanyahu dream come true, in a span of three years. He is said to have been the only world leader with prior knowledge of the planned assassination.

Regional crisis

Nothing is more satisfying for an Israeli leader than having the US embrace Israel’s strategy and fight Israel’s wars in the region. And nothing is more dangerous for the rest of the world – we all know how the last conflict Tel Aviv incited ended in disaster in Iraq.

The last thing any Israeli leader wants is for the US to withdraw from the region, leaving Israel to fend for itself in a hostile environment. Same goes for Saudi Arabia.

That is why it is important to underline that while the Trump administration may seek to reposition its forces out of the hotspots of the Middle East, including Iraq (just as Israel redeployed out of Lebanon and Gaza) the US will still maintain formidable projection of forces throughout the region.

The question is, will this strategy enable future US diplomacy, which also served Israel’s interests during the so-called “peace process”, or lead to the further escalation of violence and war?

Alas, the ongoing bluster about imminent attacks, counter-attacks, and disproportionate responses and bombings of cultural sites do not bode well for diplomacy.

With naval fleets, military bases and some 60,000 troops deployed around Iran and throughout the Middle East, the Trump administration could pursue an Israel-like air-land-sea strategy of drones, fighter jets, guided missiles, cyber and Special Forces attacks and targeted assassinations that exhaust its enemies and destabilises the region as a whole.

That would be another Netanyahu dream and another Middle East nightmare come true.