The beginning of the final and critical year of President Donald Trump’s first term, during which we will find out whether he is reelected to a second, is a fitting time to assess his achievements in the Middle East to date.
As is appropriate, however, to the general Trumpian approach of governance by chaos, it is difficult to assess his record in terms of coherent policy. Instead of well-founded strategy, what we have is a series of isolated acts, some successful, others not, often largely a matter of impulse.
Iran's nuclear program and regional expansionism have been the primary issues that have concerned Trump in the Middle East.
On the nuclear issue, and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s active encouragement, Trump withdrew from the agreement with Iran and imposed heavy economic sanctions on it. Iran’s economy is suffering a severe crisis, domestic disturbances are on the rise and, should the pressure continue for a few more years, the possibility cannot be discounted that it may ultimately be forced to knuckle under and accede to a "new and better" nuclear deal.
To date, however, Iran's behavior has not changed for the better. To the contrary, it has lashed out in a variety of directions; the danger of military escalation with the U.S., Israel and other American allies has grown and, most ominously, it is gradually restarting its nuclear program. Barring some major development, the recent assessment by IDF Military Intelligence, according to which Iran could reach a nuclear bomb within two years, may become reality.
Trump’s efforts to thwart Iranian regional expansionism have failed. In Syria, tens of thousands of Iranian-affiliated Shiite militiamen are now deployed alongside a small but growing Iranian military presence, and Iran (and Russia) have become the primary centers of power in the country. Had it not been for Israeli interdiction efforts, Iran would already have had a significant military presence in Syria, including permanent air and naval bases.
Trump’s repeated withdrawal and redeployment of the small American force in Syria, and betrayal of the Kurds, were both a moral disgrace and strategic blunder. Limited American efforts to prevent Hezbollah's ongoing arms build-up and stranglehold over the national government in Lebanon have, unsurprisingly, had little if any affect.
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Iranian affiliated militias in Iraq have become a primary source of political power and a threat to the regime. The missiles that Iran has deployed both in Iraq and Yemen have joined Hezbollah’s mammoth rocket arsenal, creating vast new launching areas from which it can threaten Israel and other American allies. In Yemen, Iranian allies, the Houthis, control the vital shipping straits at the mouth of the Red Sea.
Trump’s restraint, some might argue pusillanimity, in not responding to a series of intentional Iranian provocations in the Gulf, including attacks on oil tankers, the downing of an American UAV and an unprecedented attack on Saudi oil installations, laid the grounds for his later need to make a show of force by eliminating Soleimani. Each of these provocations would have been considered a casus belli, or at least a reason for a strong military response, by previous administrations.
Consequently, the Saudis and other players in the Gulf have lost confidence in their ability to rely on the U.S. and have begun seeking avenues of dialogue with Tehran, and the regional anti-Iranian bloc that the administration has sought to build has been weakened.
Soleimani’s elimination, positive in its own right, appears to have been a matter of presidential whim that caught his advisors by surprise, no less than it caught Iran. Tehran responded with a missile attack against American bases, the administration falsely claimed that there had been no casualties, and Trump, who had threatened Iran with the destruction of 52 targets, once again refrained from responding out of fear of escalation. Only Iran’s mistaken downing of a Ukrainian airliner diverted attention from the fact that Trump had been deterred once again.
The bottom line, from Israel’s perspective, is that its overall strategic situation vis-a-vis Iran has deteriorated severely under Trump. Iran is closer to a bomb, Israel is surrounded by Iran and its proxies, and increasingly likely to find itself standing essentially alone in the confrontation with Tehran.
On the Palestinian issue, Trump's record is more balanced. The Palestinians were given a badly needed wakeup call that they, too, will have to make significant concessions in future negotiations. U.S. assistance to UNRWA and other corrupt organizations, which have long ceased to fulfill their intended missions, was ended. Conversely, alternative mechanisms were not established to provide for the real needs that these organizations were supposed to address, and Trump’s vaunted "deal of the century" has yet to be launched, although he reportedly may now do so to help Netanyahu in his third electoral bid within a year.
A peace plan that is entirely one-sided in Israel's favor may serve this "noble" objective, but it won't bring us closer to an agreement. Coming on top of the change in the administration’s policy regarding the legality of settlements, the outcome may be annexation of territory in the West Bank and the demise of the enlightened Zionist enterprise.
Trump's recognition of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were historic decisions. Had there been a peace process, or even just a serious intention to launch one, it would have been more appropriate to save momentous "carrots" like these for the critical stages of the negotiations. Then they could have been used as a means of making necessary and wrenching concessions more politically palatable for the Israeli public.
Furthermore, in typical Trumpian fashion, the decisions were made in a largely declaratory manner: they served his political purposes, but do little to strengthen Israel’s positions in final status negotiations. On the other hand, had Trump waited for a breakthrough in negotiations, those recognitions would probably never have happened. The bottom line is that Trump is to be praised for having broken through longstanding, but illusory, diplomatic orthodoxy and for making courageous decisions.
Israel’s security is intimately linked to U.S. global and regional stature and here, sadly, the news is not good at all. Trump has turned himself into an object of contempt, both among international public opinion and leaders, historic alliances have been blithely undermined and American stature as the leader of the free world greatly weakened.
The ongoing battle with China for global preeminence has not necessarily tilted in the U.S.’s favor, and Russia, with a far weaker hand, is running circles around it, including blatant intervention in American electoral processes. When America’s stature is hurt, so too is Israel's.
Together with Netanyahu, Trump has severely eroded the long-standing tradition of bipartisan American support for Israel, a foremost pillar of the "special relationship."
Support for Israel on the Democratic side has collapsed, and leading Democratic presidential candidates have even spoken in favor of making U.S. military assistance for Israel, heretofore the bedrock of the bilateral relationship, contingent on a change in Israel's policies on the Palestinian issue. Non-religious American Jews, i.e. the vast majority, are increasingly alienated from Israel and many synagogues now refrain from Israel-related activities, due to the acrimony they engender. This is a tragedy that neither they, nor Trump and Netanyahu, should be proud of.
In both word and deed, Trump has contributed to the resurgence of anti-Semitism and racism, and to the erosion of respect for fundamental norms of democratic governance. Trump does not bear sole responsibility for these trends, which are part of broader global trajectories, but when the leader of the world’s greatest democracy exacerbates them, he undermines liberal democracy and the rule of law everywhere.
And in Netanyahu’s battle to save himself from legal and electoral jeopardy, he has followed Trump in violating virtually every previously sacrosanct public virtue.
Tectonic demographic changes are underway in American society that will have a negative impact on the bilateral relationship in the coming years, irrespective of Israeli policy. The fury among Democrats, who will regain the presidency sooner or later, and growing alienation among the Jewish community, will further exacerbate these trends.
Should one of the leading Democratic candidates be elected this year, tensions may grow in the near term. Should Trump be reelected, the tensions may be postponed, but as with all perfect storms, the winds will return with even greater force down the line.
America's presidential elections are hugely significant to Israel's security, but who leads Israel, and where, is an even more critical issue. That's why the upcoming March general election is a pressing opportunity for Israel to change direction and forestall the impending storm.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, teaches political science at Columbia and Tel Aviv universities. He is the author of "Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change" (Oxford University Press, 2018). Twitter: @FreilichChuck