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Trump’s trip to the Mideast – Fraught with pitfalls

It’s hard to understand why US Presidents get sucked into the quagmire of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Since former President Carter’s successful Camp David accord, leading to Israeli/Egyptian peace, every US President has attempted to follow in his footsteps, yet without success. Now, the self-proclaimed deal making President is about to launch another attempt. Unlike previous presidents, this one could actually do serious damage.

The trip begins in Saudi Arabia, a theoretical ally of the US in the Middle East. On the agenda is the strengthening of the bulwark against Iranian expansionism. As part of that process, Saudi Arabia is making increasing overtures to Israel to join with “moderate” Arab nations. This is a potentially break through offer for Israel. The quid pro quo, according to Saudi Arabia, is Israel agreeing to cease building settlements in the West Bank. For almost any other US President, these changes would be a huge opportunity. With the current President, one ill-advised tweet could doom any prospect.

Undoubtedly, Trump’s campaign statements about Muslims and his actions attempting to restrict entry into the US of members of certain Muslim nations are bound to be the subject of discussion. Fortunately, with respect to national security and foreign policy matters, Trump has assembled a respectable team. Almost certainly he will be briefed on what to say and what not to say to the Saudi leadership. The problem is that his impulsiveness to say or tweet what comes to his mind can undo any good advice. A related issue is his compulsive lying. All politicians embellish and lie occasionally. He has taken lying to an art form. Foreign leaders are fully aware of this issue, and it’s well publicized that many have little idea about how to deal with him or what can be expected outcomes.

From Saudi Arabia, Trump flies to Israel. The Israeli government has embraced Trump far more so than former President Obama. Prime Minister Netanyahu knows the President and has already met with him in Washington, DC, shortly after the Inauguration. But Trump’s recent disclosure of top secret information to the Russian foreign minister, apparently originating from Israeli intelligence sources, has immediately strained relations between the two countries. No matter what is said, the close American and Israeli intelligence sharing has been affected. Trump is so reckless that it’s questionable as to whether he can be trusted with any serious foreign intelligence.

As with all recent US Presidents, Trump has declared his desire to see peace in the Middle East and his plan to try and strike a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. Other than North Korea, this situation is the most intractable in the world. He likely will come to Israel armed with a Saudi offer about a regional deal with the Arab nations if Israel will cease its settlement projects in the West Bank. With different leaders and different governments, this could lay the ground work for a serious deal. But the current Netanyahu government is hamstrung with right wing nationalists, such as Naftali Bennet, who want to expand not cease settlement building. If Trump was a really shrewd politician and knowledgeable of foreign affairs, this obstacle possibly could be overcome. But Trump is neither. What can result instead is a frustrated Trump, tweeting his displeasure with Netanyahu and/or Israel and leading to serious damage in affairs between these two countries.

Let’s hope my pessimism about Trump’s trip is overstated.

Jamie Cowen
Jamie Cowen is a Partner at Cohen, Decker, Pex, Brosh Law Offices, Petach Tikvah, Israel; Former Rabbi, Tikvat Israel Congregation, Richmond, Viriginia; Former President, Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations; Former Chief Counsel, US Senate Subcommittee 1978-1986

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