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What (if anything) is the Trump administration’s Middle East policy? Two Connecticut experts weigh in

By Judie Jacobson

HARTFORD – Since taking his seat in the Oval Office, President Donald J. Trump has moved faster than a speeding bullet to make good on several of his campaign promises – most notably his vow to halt entry into the United States by travelers from several primarily Muslim countries.

When it comes to Israel and the Middle East, however, the President seems to be less inclined to move hastily on his pre-election pledges. He isn’t exactly backtracking on his vow to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but he isn’t exactly saying he would move it either. He isn’t exactly criticizing settlement expansion, but he isn’t exactly supporting it either. He didn’t exactly say he wouldn’t trash the Iran deal, but he seemed to suggest he wouldn’t, maybe. To whit:

On moving the embassy: “I don’t want to talk about it yet. It’s too early,” the president said in a recent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

On Israel’s announced settlement expansion: “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” the White House said in a statement issued on Feb. 3. Adding (just in case you thought that was an official White House position): “The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity.”

On Iran: “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over,” announced National Security Adviser Mike Flynn on Feb. 1, following that country’s Jan. 25 test of ballistic missiles. A pronouncement that was accompanied by new sanctions and a few tough-talking tweets from Donald Trump, including one in which he warned, “Iran is playing with fire.” Does this mean the Iran nuclear deal, reviled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is on its last legs? Not just yet.

All of which leaves us wondering, just where does the White House stand on issues of concern to Israel and the Middle East? And, what can we expect to result from Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to the White House on Feb. 15 – his first since Donald Trump’s inauguration? For answers, we went to the experts.

Dr. Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government, Emerita at Smith College where she taught a variety of courses on Middle East Politics. Fluent in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, she has held visiting appointments at Yale, Harvard, and the Hebrew University, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and several Fulbright grants. She is the author of many scholarly articles on a variety of topics in Middle East history and politics, she has also written Women Living Change: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Essays from the Smith College Research Project on Women and Social Change. Politics and Society in Ottoman Palestine: The Arab Struggle for Survival and Power, Postcolonial Theory and The Arab-Israeli Conflict. Her latest book is Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine. She was named the Katharine Asher Engel lecturer at Smith College for the 2012-2013 academic year in recognition of her scholarly achievements and Smith’s Honored Professor for excellence in teaching. She currently serves as vice-president of the Association for Israel Studies and is an adjunct professor at Haifa University.

Dr. Ronald Kiener is a professor of religion at Trinity College and currently chair of its Department of Religion. Previously, he served as founding director of Trinity’s Jewish Studies Program, which he led for its first decade. A member of the Trinity faculty since 1983, he was also the founding coordinator of Trinity’s major in Middle Eastern studies. He teaches an annual course entitled “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” He is a past recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Mellon Fellowship in Medieval Studies.


JEWISH LEDGER (JL): The Trump administration surprised everyone last week by his pronouncement on the Israeli settlements. Are we witnessing a back-to-Obama moment? Is Bibi Netanyahu worried?

DONNA DIVINE (DD): President Trump’s statement on settlements seemed more similar to the position taken by George W. Bush – who had concluded an agreement with then-Israeli Prime Minister Sharon about building in settlement blocs – that is, areas that would eventually become part of Israel when an agreement with the Palestinians was signed – comprising about four percent of the disputed area and about 75 percent of the population living on land conquered in the 1967 June War. The idea of settlement blocs was premised on the notion that Israel would forfeit more or less the same amount of land to the Palestinians – hence it would be a land swap, not an expansion of Israel’s size.  Israel also offered to build up and not out in these settlement blocs.

Embedded in the White House statement [of last week] was the notion of reviving this Sharon-Bush understanding – totally rejected by President Obama who considered any building anywhere on land conquered in 1967 – including Jerusalem, a settlement. Prime Minister Netanyahu substantially curbed settlement building in the past eight years, noting frequently that Israel’s government had not officially created any new settlements in the past 25 years. When the illegal settlement of Amona was dismantled two days ago (and the Israeli Supreme Court ruled the compromise brokered with its residents illegal) Netanyahu announced the government’s intention to allow 3,000 more housing units in the West Bank and to offer Amona residents the opportunity to found a new settlement. Israelis are fully aware that Netanyahu often makes promises he does or cannot keep. These housing units, including the new settlement, may be among them.

Part of his motivation is to stay in power and weaken the ‘opposition’ particularly on the right. He considers the settlers an important part of his political base. But the settlement issue is seen one way in Israel and another in the rest of the world. Not that most Israelis believe it is prudent to build settlements in the West Bank, but most understand that without the kind of dedication shown by the settler community-and once shown by labor Zionist pioneers, a Jewish state would not have been founded.

If President Trump is willing to revive the Sharon-Bush understanding, settlement expansion may be halted giving Palestinians incentives to create and develop functioning political institutions in areas that will eventually become the basis for their own state. The problem still to be resolved is what is included in the so-called settlement blocs.  Prime Minister Netanyahu includes Ariel and Maalei Adumim – most Americans think Israel cannot keep both. But this is at least a basis for negotiation and not one that guarantees absolute stalemate.

RONALD KIENER (RK): For the first two weeks the White House was relatively silent about things pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict and that was interpreted, in the context of campaign promises, as full-throated support for anything that this particular Israeli government might do. Indeed, when the first 2,500 settlements were announced, there was not the usual reaction from the White House. But when the second round of settlement units was announced it was a much more flagrant attempt by Netanyhau to stake out a position, because that second round included plans for a brand new authorized settlement in the West Bank – something there hasn’t been since the 1990s.

It happened to be on the same day that the State Department finally got their new Secretary of State. And, it happened in the aftermath of King Abdullah of Jordan’s visit to Washington during which time he had several ad hoc meetings with members of the administration [including Vice President Pence; as well as a brief meeting with Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast].

After not saying anything, the White House suddenly reverted to the old George W. Bush/Republican default policy, which is: “We don’t think that settlement construction is necessarily an impediment to peace but we’d like to see that Israel not build any new settlements, and keep it at that.”

What’s happened is not so much a reversal, as it is a temporary reversion to the Republican default position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is that peace is important and settlements can be tolerated within certain conventions. I imagine some of this will be worked out in the upcoming meeting [between Trump and Netanyahu].

What we’ve now learned is that things can change on a dime. There is going to eventually be a Trump policy on the Arab-Israeli peace process, but it’s a work in progress and a great deal will be settled or clarified after this upcoming meeting.


JL: What is Netanyhu’s reaction to this turn of events?

RK: Bibi is sort of testing the waters. He was under the impression that he had a new president who would support Israel no matter what. He received indications that there was going to be movement of the embassy to Jerusalem –or at least that was being talked seriously about. He saw a settler-supporting ambassador appointed to his country and he said “let’s go for it.” It didn’t backfire. I don’t think he overstepped his bounds. I don’t think he got slapped down. I don’t think this is a crisis. I think that in some ways Netanyahu might even be happy if the policy reverts back to the George W. Bush policy that says settlements are basically okay as long as they’re constructed within the parameters of already built settlements.

I don’t think this puts settlements back at the center of the discussion, the way Obama turned it into the linchpin issue. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that and I don’t think that may be where things end up. I think Trump is a transactional president. He wants to make the best deal and he can switch on a dime. Where the Trump administration will ultimately end up, I think, is with a typically pro-Israel Republican policy. But the policy won’t be “anything Israel does is good with us.”

DD: Netanyahu was supposed to be the second foreign visitor to Trump, but he’s going to be the third or fourth. He was moved, and the move wasn’t exactly ideal in terms of Netanyahu’s schedule because he then has to go to Australia and some other places. So, there are some hints that this is not going to be some sort of slam-dunk kind of thing. Netanyahu is being pushed by some of the people in his cabinet, some of the other coalition party members, into taking moves he was reluctant to take. For example, he’s promised the people who have been evacuated from the illegal Amona settlement that he would create a new settlement – when up until last week he was always stating very emphatically that in 25 years Israel has not created a new settlement officially. My gut tells me that some of what Netanyahu is doing in terms of settlements is a function of his fear of the possibility of indictment, his fear of losing the coalition. Everybody is nipping at his heels to replace him. So these announcements which may or may not ever result in actually building houses, are an attempt to shore up his own base and political support.

Netanyahu has always liked to play the moderating role, not moving to one extreme or another and leveraging his knowledge of diplomacy with his knowledge of security, and he threads the needle pretty carefully and astutely when he can thread. The election of Donald Trump has injected not only insecurity into international politics in general, but also it isn’t clear how all of this is going to affect Israel. During the campaign, Donald Trump said some things Israel should find problematic – about Israel paying for its own defense, etc. He was very inconsistent. It’s not clear where he’s going to move or in which direction.


Q: What do you expect to be the main issue on the agenda when Netanyahu and Trump meet in Washington on Feb. 15?

DD: I suspect that Netanyahu is concerned about Iran more than the settlements, more than the Palestinians, more than moving the embassy to Jerusalem. Because Iran represents an existential threat to Israel and the Iranian presence has been expanded, either by its own forces or by close proxies in Iraq and Syria. It’s had a presence in Lebanon, with Hezbollah. It still plays some sort of role – though a more complicated one – in the Gaza Strip, either through influence with Islamic jihad or possibly with some of the figures who are members of Hamas. So, Iran essentially has a land bridge that can do a lot of damage to Israel militarily. The Iranian thread is very substantial and I suspect that will be the first discussion, the first item on Netanyahu’s agenda.

RK: I think the big issue is probably the re-orientation towards Russia and a new approach to Syria. In other words, Netanyahu is sort of getting everything he wants. He’s getting a supportive White House administration after eight years of enduring what he believes was a hostile administration and a much more confrontational and skeptical approach towards Iran. But what Bibi is probably going to have to swallow here is this grand strategy of Trump’s to eradicate ISIS from the face of the earth, which will involve close coordination with Russia and watching that very sensitive northern border. So, I honestly think that – more than the embassy, more than the two-state solution, more than the Palestinians – the new strategy to eradicate ISIS is going to be the main topic of conversation.

Trump has three major policies in the Middle East. One is to destroy ISIS; the second is to change the U.S. relationship with Iran in a more skeptical, ‘doubting Thomas’ kind of way. The third thing we’ve got to remember when it comes to the Middle East is that Trump has consistently said that the U.S. wasted its blood and treasure in a pointless invasion of Iraq. And I believe he and his national security team are absolutely dead set against a major ground war in the Middle East. They are much more interested in special operations – in doing small, supposedly smart intelligence gathering and on-the-ground punishment of ISIS and its leadership.

Those are the three principles that seem to be fairly consistent throughout the campaign. If Trump does have any guiding principles, I think those are the three. The two-state solution, the Arab-Israeli conflict – those are things that I don’t think are all that important to him. But he understands that there are strong supporters of his who are very pro-Israel and that will make a difference to him.

The question then is, as a transactional deal-maker, what is he going to ask of Netanyahu. The only thing that comes to mind is what will happen in Syria.


Q: Where do Mattis and Tillerson stand on Israel and the Middle East?

RK: We don’t know much about Rex Tillerson, although we can make certain surmises because of his long career in the oil business. Mattis has a much more conventional approach to the Middle East and to Israel: Israel is a close ally, settlements are a complication in resolving the conflict. He’s been on record saying those kinds of things in the past. I don’t think there’s anyone in the current Trump administration who views Israel in the same way that people in the Obama administration did. So on a certain level, the Trump presidency in the short term bodes well for Israel: Strengthen security; no kind of hesitation in foreign aid; backing up Israel diplomatically in international fora.

This is going to be a much more comfortable relationship, until you have your moment – you know, the kind of moment Chris Christie had when he discovered he was not particularly useful to Donald Trump and now he’s out in the cold in Trenton. But Bibi Netanyahu isn’t stupid. He must understand that there is that kind of volatility in the Trump negotiating style. I think it is Bibi’s hope to stay on Donald’s good side because he knows that being on his bad side is not good for Israel or for him. That’s why Netanyahu sent out that tweet defending the wall [with Mexico], which put the state of Israel into a state of mini-crisis with Mexico, though all that’s been papered over and is ok now.

Again, Trump’s north star is defeat and eradicate ISIS, change or eliminate the Iran deal, and stay out of a ground war. After that I think his calculation is “what’s the best thing for me?” Right now we’re so early into this there’s just no way of knowing.


Q: Last week, National Security Advisor Mike Flynn put Iran “on notice,” and the President followed up with some tough talk of his own. Is the President prepared to eradicate the controversial Iran deal?

DD: There seems to be, aside from President Trump’s tweets, a consensus that the Americans will enforce the Iranian nuclear deal more rigorously. They won’t scrap it, they won’t tear it up, but they will enforce it more rigorously, such as by imposing sanctions. I don’t know what that will mean for European relations with Iran. The problem is we don’t know yet what in general Trump’s Middle East policy is going to be. There’s been a lot of inconsistent statements or statements that are unclear.

In the Syrian context, he seems to focus on ISIS and on trying to forge an alliance with Russia, saying that we have common interests in fighting terrorism. The Russian presence in Syria has been very pivotal in shoring up the Assad regime, and I don’t think Israel much cares whether Assad is in power or not. That’s not a major issue for Israel.

But the Russian presence in Syria is also connected to the Iranian presence in Syria, and Russia and Iran have a series of tight relationships both economic and military that present problems for Israel. Ideally, Israel would like to convince the Trump administration to create a foreign policy that convinces Russia to separate from its Iranian connections or to weaken its multiple connections with Iran. That seems to me an insurmountable goal. I’m not even sure that the Americans, even if they wanted to, could do it.

I suspect that in crafting its relationship with Russia, America will have not only the Middle East in mind – Syria, Iran, and the general region – but also Eastern Europe – Ukraine, the Baltic states, the Caucuses, Turkey. It will have to craft a policy – and if it can do it it deserves more than the Nobel Peace Prize – that somehow leverages what is in America’s interests against what is in Russia’s interests, and perhaps gives them something they want or gives them some relaxation of sanctions with regard to Crimea, if they can get Ukraine to agree to that, in return for something America might want in the Middle East. I don’t think they can focus on the Middle East in isolation of other areas, nor can Israel focus on its issues – like the Palestinians – in isolation of the larger Arab Middle East.

RK: Well, [National Security Advisor Michael] Flynn came out and put Iran “on notice.” Whereas the Obama administration would regard the launch of the test missile as “Well, that’s not good, but we’re not going to make a big deal about it, and technically it isn’t in violation of any of the agreements that we struck with Iran,” the Trump administration is saying, “We consider that a violation of our agreement and therefore everything is on the table.” I think the Trump administration’s intent is to change the equation of how the agreement is monitored and not to dismiss or push under the rug Iran’s testing the limits of what the international community will tolerate. But I don’t know if that turns into any kind of direct confrontation. There’s a good enough case to be made that if we just simply walk away from this deal the deal completely unravels and we destroy our relationship with the EU, we destroy our relationship with Russia. In Trump’s view this is the worst deal ever made and he never would have made it, but I don’t think he’s going to tear it up.


Q: Do you expect Steve Bannon to have a prominent role in shaping Middle East policy?

DD: Well, he will be a member of the national security committees and an affirmative member of the deliberations. In fairness to Trump, Ben Rhodes was a permanent member of the National Security Council during President Obama’s term of office, and his degree is in creative writing. It was decided under previous administrations that it was helpful to have someone who knew domestic politics sit in these deliberations, if only to give security people a sense of how their decisions would be viewed in the context of the civilian population. But Bannon does seem to be very powerful and he seems to be a persuasive confidante of the President.

RK: Steve Bannon is the man who introduced antisemitic themes into the last days of the campaign and into the inaugural speech – that is, all the conspiracy theories of modern antisemitism without ever directly referencing it to Jews; talk about international financiers who are sucking America dry and ‘cosmopolitans’ who are working against the interests of the U.S., etc. Anyone who knows Jewish history knows that these are the tropes of modern antisemitism. But to that Bannon has responded that Breitbart [a far-right online news and opinon service for which he previously served as executive chair] has established a Jerusalem bureau and has been one of the most avidly pro-Israel, pro-settlement, pro-muscular Judaism advocates in American media. You know, far worse last weekend than the drama that took place at America’s airports [in protest over the immigration ban] was the permanent inclusion of Steve Bannon into the National Security Council. Does Trump care about these things? He strikes me as a somewhat aloof and disinterested CEO.


Q: Will Jared Kushner play a role in negotiating peace?

DD: Conceivably he could. I’m reluctant to draw conclusions unless I see some data, facts, information. But he has an appointment [as senior advisor to the President]; he’s moved his family to Washignton; he presumably has sat in on some high level deliberations. The president has said he’s putting him in charge of solving some problems in the Middle East. So we’ll see.

RK: The White House is leaking like a sieve and we’re getting all sorts of information, some of which is contradictory. So, everything that I’m saying is based on leaked press reports. Supposedly, Bannon is out there pushing for these inexplicable policies, both domestic and foreign, and Kushner is described as the calming influence. But on Israel, I think Bannon and Kushner don’t have a whole lot of difference in terms of the ultimate policy. Donald Trump really does want to see Jared Kushner bring peace, but I think that Mattis and Tillerson are bringing a touch of reality to the Trump family fantasy – which is that Jared is going to be, with Donald’s support, the peacemaker. I think reality has set in.


Q: How are the Arab states reacting to all this?

DD: The Arab states are regimes, and most of the Sunni regimes are more afraid of Iran than they are of Israel. They can’t do very much to reach out to Israel. There have been lots of proposals – and certainly Israeli Defense Minister [Avigdor] Liberman is an advocate of a proposal that the Palestinian problem should be part of a larger Arab outreach that would broaden the Palestinian issue to get the Arab states involved in it. This wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. But the problem for Arab regimes is they can’t publicly reach out very easily to Israel because for generations they have fired up their people to think of Israel as Satan. So, they’re afraid that any radical change on their part without the so-called solving of the Palestinian problem would start riots in their own streets and undermine their own power. They hope because of Tillerson’s relationship with the Arab world – with Saudi Arabia – the Americans will re-engage. You actually had people in the Gulf praising Donald Trump’s immigration ban. So, they want the Americans to back these regimes in one form or another and they’re hoping they can work with Donald Trump.

RK: They’re scared. They’re obviously troubled – they watch the news, they read the same things everybody’s reading, and they’re obviously just as troubled by Trump’s policies as everyone else. On the one hand, Trump is expressing great animosity towards certain countries, but other countries in the Middle East are not part of his immigration or refugee ban. The Saudis are very wary. Egypt is very wary. And already [Jordan’s] King Abdullah has made a pass through Washington.

This administration looks like it’s making a lot of amateur-hour mistakes, from the rollout of the refugee immigration ban to its conduct with foreign leaders, whether it be the Prime Minister of England or Australia or the President of Mexico. Right now this is his sort of honeymoon, his opportunity to make his imprint on the world stage. And right now everyone is sort of standing back and letting him shoot himself in the foot.

Eventually, there is going to be an international crisis – it’s inevitable – and then we’re going to find out things that we currently don’t know about how this administration is going to conduct itself. To put it in a corporate context, is Trump ultimately a CEO who is going to be an involved decision-maker, or will he be willing to allow his selected ‘executive vice presidents’ to run the show? If so, the question becomes what do Rex Tillerson and James Mattis think about the Arabs and Israel, Iran, North Korea, etc.?

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