By Eytan Gilboa
Foreign policy issues in general and those of the Middle East in particular received little attention during the recent presidential elections.
President-elect Donald Trump made a few statements about challenges in the Middle East and American-Israeli relations, but these were very broad and lacked focus.
Trump faces several huge challenges in the Middle East, including the perceived decline in American standing; the horrific civil war in Syria and the other wars in Iraq, Yemen and Libya; the Russian intervention; the Iran nuclear deal and quest for hegemony in the region; the military campaign to destroy the territorial bases of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; the Turkish tilt to Islamic theocracy and efforts to prevent a Kurdish state; tense relations with Egypt; and Palestinian-Israeli relations.
Usually, incoming presidents, especially those from a party different to those of outgoing presidents, like to adopt a different and sometimes vastly opposing agenda and policies to those of their predecessors. Trump is likely to follow this practice even more than other outgoing presidents. He severely criticized President Barack Obama’s foreign and national security policies, especially the Iran nuclear deal, the battle against the Islamic State and the handling of American-Israeli relations.
All American-Arab allies and Israel would like to see a major shift in the American strategic approach to the Middle East. Obama has left a serious leadership vacuum in the region, which has been quickly filled by Russian President Vladimir Putin. American allies expect Trump to restore American power and influence in the region. Obama’s policies have blurred the lines between allies and enemies, and Trump is expected to clarify who is a friend and who is a foe.
American allies are still concerned about Iran’s military and political interventions in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; the nuclear deal; the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles; and the relations with Russia. Israel and Egypt, whose relations with the Obama administration have been uneasy and tense, would like to see a friendlier and more understanding environment in Washington.
Trump defined the Iran nuclear deal as a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated.” He promised to cancel it. As Congress did not approve of the deal Trump has the authority to reverse it. Yet, the deal was approved by the UN Security Council and includes several useful restrictions. Trump may much more closely monitor implementation of all the deal’s articles and more aggressively deal with Iran’s attempts to destabilize pro-Western governments in the region. Iran is likely to test Trump’s determination to limit its regional aspirations.
Since the establishment of Israel, every American president has expressed a desire to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Almost every American president has promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, and Trump is no exception. Obama applied heavy pressure on Israel in order to promote negotiation with the Palestinians. This strategy failed. The Palestinians refused to negotiate directly with Israel, and they expected Obama to “deliver” Israel so that they will not have to make serious concessions in return for peace with Israel. Trump said he wouldn’t force negotiations or a “solution.” The Palestinians may now conclude that their best option is to seek an agreement via direct negotiations with Israel. Trump is unlikely to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
The U.S. and the Russian attempts to achieve a ceasefire in Syria failed. The Russian aggressive intervention has broadened the conflict. They have bombed the relatively liberal rebel groups, supported by the U.S., more than the Islamic State. Putin has acquired reputation as a determined leader and a reliable ally. One of his goals is to diminish the U.S. standing in the region. The increased Russian standing in the Middle East has direct effects on Putin’s policies in Europe, particularly in the Ukraine crisis. Trump was described as Putin’s “friend,” and it remains to be seen how his relations with the Kremlin will change the Russian behavior in Europe and the Middle East.
Trump will soon have to reassess American interests in the Middle East to produce new and more effective ways to deal with the numerous challenges in a way that will best balance resources and goals. The expectations for change are very high – perhaps too high – and the margins for more errors and disappointments are becoming narrower than they were a decade ago.