As President Trump heads out on his first trip abroad, his administration is in full meltdown mode engulfed by one scandal after another. But in the Middle East the story is different.Optimism about the Trump Presidency reigns supreme.
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In the Arabian peninsula, Trump’s style of personal diplomacy has been a welcome change from Obama’s more aloof approach. His reliance on family for advice, and willingness to overlook questions of human rights for harder security concerns, appeals to these partners. For Israelis, Trump passes the “kishkes test”, building a good rapport with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and speaking a language they can relate to.
Even more important than style, on a policy level, Trump’s willingness to take a confrontational approach towards Iran has been welcomed by both Israel and the Gulf States.
The President’s visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel will be a success if he can keep these good vibes going, continue the positive trajectory on the ISIS fight, articulate a plan for countering Iran’s actions, and make some small progress between Israelis and Palestinians.
First, President Trump must show discipline and avoid the unforced errors. He is already off to a terrible start, with news that he revealed highly sensitive Israeli intelligence to the Russian foreign minister. Israeli officials will publicly downplay the incident and Prime Minister Netanyahu is deeply invested in the public optics of a successful visit. But behind closed doors, this will undoubtedly weaken security and intelligence cooperation and undercut the trust that is critical for U.S.-Israel security cooperation.
The highest stakes public moments will be his speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia and his visit to the Western Wall. These events will be charged with religious and political symbolism, presenting opportunities to connect with the Israeli and Arab publics. But if they are poorly stage-managed or if the President goes off script could be disastrous (Imagine Trump talking about James Comey and Russia in front of the Western Wall).
Second, the President will have to unify international partners behind his counter-ISIS strategy. This will not be too difficult, because his approach will be a natural follow-on from President Obama’s strategy, which already had broad international support and focused on working by, with, and through local partners on the ground to slowly retake ISIS-held territory.
Much more challenging will be articulating a clear strategy to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities across the region in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. Even though Trump has talked tough, it is not clear what he will actually do. And before leaving on his trip, he waived a series of sanctions on Iran thus signaling that he will at least for the moment not walk away from the nuclear agreement.
It appears the administration will increase support for Saudi operations in Yemen to counter Iranian support for the Houthis, through greater intelligence sharing, provision of precision-guided weapons, and increased interdiction of Iranian arms shipments. In Iraq, American options are more limited, as by virtue of history, geography, and culture Iran will always be a player. But the United States can leverage its military and political investment to offset some of Tehran’s influence in Baghdad.
In Syria, the U.S. approach will likely not focus on ejecting Bashar al Assad, but instead on negotiating with the Russians to end the war while trying to limit Iran’s influence. Any agreement should ensure that moderate forces in southern Syria control the areas on the Israeli and Jordanian border, keeping Sunni extremists and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps at bay. The United States should also prevent Iran from establish a land bridge from Tehran to Beirut, by ensuring American partners retake ISIS-held territory in southeastern Syria instead of allowing Assad, Russian, and Iranian forces to control that area.
Finally, there is the question of whether the President can make any progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Reports that that the Gulf States have offered some confidence-building measures with Israel if the Israeli government makes gestures towards the Palestinians are promising. However, the devil will be in the details. Arab leaders will not go out on a political limb unless they see meaningful Israeli steps towards the Palestinians. But given the nature of the Israeli governing coalition, it is unlikely that Prime Minister Netanyahu will have much flexibility to make a grand gesture.
Instead, Trump would be better off pushing for smaller steps that improve the situation on the ground including significant economic measures by Israel, such as handing over some portions of Area C to Palestinian control; a quiet, informal arrangement for Israeli restraint on settlements; and a Palestinian commitment to more directly tackle incitement.
Ultimately, the President’s first trip abroad is extremely ambitious. Success on the Middle East leg will require a disciplined approach by the President and an effective policymaking process below him. Thus far the administration has struggled mightily with both. Let's hope it changes.
Ilan Goldenberg is the Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a Policy Advisor to Israel Policy Forum. He previously served as part of the American Team during the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.Follow him on Twitter: @ilangoldenberg