North Africa, West Asia

Trump in the Middle East: context and consequences

Trump’s regional approach to “peace” and stability and the new regional order, aims to ensure the normalcy of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours, especially the wealthy ones.

Alaa Tartir
22 May 2017

Saudi King Salman Bin Abdelaziz (or Abdul Aziz) Al Saud (2nd from L) dances the 'ardha' or traditional sword dance with US President Donald Trump in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 20, 2017. Picture by Balkis Press/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved. The US President Donald Trump has no well-defined policy or strategy, let alone a vision, for the Middle East yet. So far, he has just taken actions that are not clearly outlined in a foreign policy framework but appear to be intended to mainly satisfy his domestic constituency and his ideological fantasies. He is using hard and soft power in an uncalculated manner: bombing Syria and Afghanistan, while reportedly cutting the aid by half to two main allies, Jordan and Egypt.

However, his trip to Saudi Arabia to create the fantasy of an Arab Nato, as Robert Fisk has argued, aims to build a Muslim Sunni coalition to destroy the Muslim Shia block in a simple ‘anti-terrorist’ story for the Americans. This summit in Saudi Arabia will be a defining phase and crucial step for Trump’s future strategy for the broader Middle East, though. The political, personal, and attitudinal similarities between Trump and the many leaders he will meet in Saudi Arabia, are striking. And therefore, to use the “Trumpism” narrative, they will get along extremely well, which means a new US-led regional order is already in the making.

Although his overall strategy for the Middle East is still unfolding, yet the unconditional support for Israel will always remain the constant factor in the equation and in his calculations. As with past US presidents and administrations, he continues his unqualified support for Israel, keeping it immune to international law and safe from any accountability mechanisms, while continuing to deny Palestinian human rights.

In essence, Trump’s regional approach to “peace” and stability and the new regional order, aim to ensure the normalcy of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours, especially the wealthy one, as wealth is the only religion that Trump really respects. Such regional approach will further empower the Israeli position in any final-status negotiations with the Palestinians, and will create further distortions in the mere idea of peace.

In addition, the US leadership of the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) could create two tangible outcomes in the short term: More securitization of everything; and more of the well-trodden path of economic peace. These are not good news for peace or justice within the existing dynamics and realties. Although these two outcomes will satisfy and please the major actors and players, they also mean an entrenchment of the destructive status quo with its skewed asymmetry of power. This means that the “peace process party” will continue, but “real peace” will become further away as the Israeli colonial dominance will just keep on expanding.

Yet, the current Palestinian leadership is desperately willing to play the game and follow the rules, although the main actor (the US administration) should not be trusted, and the skewed rules of the game should be resisted. The Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership fears marginalisation and side-lining in this process and political game, and this is why they devoted magnificent effort just to receive a phone call from Trump. And then they devoted more efforts just to meet Trump in the White House, as if meeting Trump is the top national priority for the Palestinians.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas felt a sense of victory just by meeting Trump, and the happiness that he expressed during the meeting is the best illustration of that, especially with all the praise he has received from Trump. Therefore, the content of the meeting was not of vital importance for the Palestinian leadership, as the mere occurrence of the meeting became the end in itself.

Consequently, the vague language of Trump about “starting a process” was a familiar territory and convenient language for the Palestinian leadership. This is why the Palestinian leadership did not resist in any form, but rather surrendered to Trump’s conditionality and vague approach. After all, by the mere engagement in a “peace process”, the current Palestinian leadership is offered a much-needed international legitimacy (albeit that is absent at home), which also implies that they are a player in that process.

All this was for the sake of being perceived as an indispensable actor in the region and its future arrangements.

Let us be under no illusion, however. This does not mean that the Palestinian leadership is doing this - positioning itself as an indispensable actor- for its people or their cause and struggle. This leadership has failed miserably over the last two decades, and there is not a single reason to trust it will do any better this time for the future generations. It has exhausted all its chances, tools, approaches and strategies.

Thus, there is a clear and evident gap between the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people. The Palestinian leadership is living in a different realty, having priorities that have nothing to do with people’s aspirations, which explains the core thrust of the deep legitimacy gap and representation crisis that characterises the Palestinian political scene. This is neither good for peace nor justice, nor for freedom and self-determination.

Indeed, the legitimacy crisis is not a new phenomenon, but the last decade - with the entrenchment of the Palestinian authoritarianism- had created two different realties as a result of the statehood myth: a political elite that is only interested in power and authority (regardless if it is real or phantom), and a nation that has to confront with and resist multiple levels of coercion. These two different realties translate to different actions.

Nowadays, while the Palestinian people are focusing on the prisoners’ hunger strike as a unifying cause, the PA leadership is focusing on ending that strike and its ramifications in the Palestinian streets or diverting it in support of Abbas before the arrival of Trump to the region. Hence, the Palestinian Authority is resuming, once again, its fragmentary role.

A brief look at some recent opinion polls results, as I highlighted in my recent Al-Shabaka policy brief, could illustrate this wide gap between the Palestinian leadership and people. The majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (between 60% and 80%) oppose security coordination with Israel, while the PA leadership considers it as “sacred” and a “national interest”. In March 2017, in a Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey poll, two-thirds of respondents demanded Abbas’s resignation. Around 67% of West Bank Palestinians believe they feel that they are living in an undemocratic system that cracks down on freedoms.

Such indicators should not be surprising as the whole post-Oslo Accords Palestinian political system is based on the dominance of political elite and the marginalisation of the people. The people were never in the core of the political system and therefore their aspirations and wishes could not be channelled to the decision-making processes. In the absence of that, peace will remain elusive.

Over the years, the “bitterness” of this process of marginalisation and alienation, disempowered the Palestinian people and stripped them from basic forms of political agency and representation which explains the existing wide gap between the Palestinian people and leadership. This gap cannot be bridged unless a fundamental overhaul of the Palestinian political system and structures take place. This is another task and duty for the next generation of Palestinian leaders.

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