Analysis

Impossible to Second-guess Trump on Israel, Russia and Iran

Netanyahu already has to tread carefully around Russian President Putin; now he'll have to do likewise with outlier Trump.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking with Donald Trump, September 25, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking with Donald Trump, September 25, 2016. Kobi Gideon/GPO

Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election is the biggest ever “black swan” theory. It is such a surprising development, in such blatant contradiction to most forecasts, that it could completely remove this term from the lexicon.

It wasn’t only pollsters and political advisers who failed in their assessments. Trump’s “November surprise” is being received with shock in most world capitals, probably mixed in many cases with fear and concern.

The rout inflicted on Hillary Clinton most likely reflects deep undercurrents in American society, some of which may be long-term consequences of the huge financial crisis of 2008.

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That crisis exacerbated the feelings of alienation between politicians, senior officials and giant corporations in Washington, New York and California and the masses of voters living in the “fly-over states” between the two coasts – the ones who handed Trump his victory. It’s clear that voting for Trump was largely an act of defiance against the political establishment, media and elites.

The unknown element for leaders and political analysts globally is how Trump will conduct himself going forward. His restrained victory speech on Wednesday morning is not very instructive. Over the last two years, Trump has shown – in addition to an extreme personality and a very liberal attitude toward facts – a very tenuous grasp on foreign affairs, with frequent zigzagging in his positions.

His inexperience, as well as the problematic cadre of consultants and associates who surround him, makes it difficult to predict his next steps. There will be players – both state and nonstate – who may, over the next few months, exploit the transition period from Obama to Trump to launch demonstrative actions of brinkmanship, hoping that America blinks first.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to congratulate Trump on his victory, as is customary. His patron, Sheldon Adelson, and his mouthpiece, Israel Hayom, will no doubt celebrate the victory, after consistently predicting it for many months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, June 7, 2016.
Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via AP

One can assume that Netanyahu, who got little satisfaction from President Barack Obama, would actually have had a reasonable relationship with Clinton. It’s true that Netanyahu reads the Republican establishment well and has good relations with it. But Trump is not part of that establishment. He’s a new and unknown species of politician and leader, one who doesn’t consider himself bound by any specific ideology or accepted codes of conduct. The first rule of his administration will be to expect the unexpected.

When asked three months ago about his assessment of the presidential result, Netanyahu refused to take a stand, saying that everything was open, despite the forecasts that Clinton would win. This morning, it turns out he was right. However, the gleeful cries of joy on the right – accompanied by swipes at the monolithic analysis of most Israeli media – may be premature.

Even if basic elements of the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel remain intact, regardless of the identity of the president or prime minister, for Trump all else is open. It’s best not to embark on hasty gambles due to a sense that there’s an opportunity here for the right and the settlers, particularly since it’s unclear if Obama will decide to cooperate with a pro-Palestinian French initiative at the UN Security Council before he makes way for Trump in January.

Just as he may be the first American president who moves his embassy to Jerusalem and ignores construction in Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the 1967 borders, Trump could easily make an abrupt about-turn based on internal political considerations or a sense of having sustained some personal insult.

It was Trump, not Clinton, who expressed doubts about the U.S. military aid package to Israel during the election campaign. Netanyahu already has to tread carefully near the leader of another world power, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is meddling in the Middle East. He will now have to do so with Trump as well.

Challenges will be laid at Trump’s feet – and, before that, at those of President Obama during the transition period – in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The greatest concern will probably be felt in Ukraine and the Baltic states, which are threatened by Russia. From January, they will have to contend with an American president who doesn’t conceal his admiration for Putin. Moscow, along with the Assad regime in Syria, may soon renew their heavy bombardment of Aleppo, which has already claimed the lives of thousands of civilians. It’s doubtful whether Obama will now mobilize the energy required to take action and stop the murderous siege of the Syrian city.

In the background, Assad and the Russians’ ally, Iran, await. Trump previously announced that he would not abide by the nuclear agreement the world powers reached with the Islamic republic in July 2015.

From January 20, Donald Trump – surely the most exceptional person to become U.S. president in the modern era – will head the leading economic power and largest military force in the world, one possessing a vast nuclear arsenal.

In his victory speech, he repeated his promise to make America great again. At least for now, though, his surprising victory seems like a worrisome message to the global economy, and possibly to world peace.