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Drunk with power: How Trump is destroying the Middle East

If you want to know who will pay the price of a re-energised Trump, the answer is the Palestinians
US President Donald Trump during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, 25 March 2019 (AFP)

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation has ended in the worst possible way for a large coalition of forces that hoped to see the back, or at least the beginning of the end, of US President Donald Trump.

While low-hanging fruit has fallen, Trump and his family have wriggled out of some of the most searching questions asked of a sitting president.

Questions about obstruction of justice are not over, but the Mueller firecracker has fizzled, Trump has rebounded and his pursuers are once again back on the defensive.

The prospect of a second Trump term now seems more likely.

Seismic shifts

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Washington will almost certainly not be the only place to feel the seismic shifts in power that have taken place this week. If you want to know who will pay the price of a re-energised Trump, the answer is already before you: the Palestinians.

While the final act of the Mueller drama has played out, another one has unfolded almost below the radar.

If you allow Israel to keep this piece of occupied territory, there is nothing stopping Israel from now annexing part or all of the West Bank

This is as consequential to the Middle East as this president - who can fire an FBI director investigating him, or dangle pardons before potential witnesses - is at home.

Trump gifted Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, the Golan Heights - a prize all other US presidents, Republican and Democrat, have rightly backed away from, and one which the EU has emphatically today rejected.

The Golan Heights on the Syrian border was captured at the same time as the West Bank was. If you allow Israel to keep this piece of occupied territory, there is nothing stopping Israel from now annexing part or all of the West Bank.

Which is exactly the point a senior official on Netanyahu's plane back from Washington made to a Haaretz reporter. He said: "Everyone says you can't hold an occupied territory, but this proves you can. If it's occupied in a defensive war, then it's ours."

The Golan Heights: Why it matters

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Officially part of Syria since the country’s independence in 1944, the Golan Heights is a strategic plateau straddling Israel and Syria and overlooking southern Lebanon.

It was captured by Israel during the Middle East war of 1967 and subsequently annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

The Golan is recognised as part of Syria by the United Nations. UN Resolution 242 calls for Israel to withdraw from the Golan and other occupied territories including the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

However, Israel has repeatedly refused to do so and in 1981, it formally annexed the Syrian territory.

A UN peacekeeping force has patrolled the demarcation line between Syrian and Israeli-controlled areas of the Golan since 1974.

Israel has constructed settlements that are illegal under international law in the occupied territory and settled its citizens there.

Some 20,000 Israeli settlers currently live in the Golan, alongside around 26,000 of the territory’s native inhabitants, who are predominantly Druze and identify as Syrian.

Since the Syrian war erupted in 2011, Syrians in the Golan taking Israeli citizenship has become more common, though the vast majority reject it.

The Golan is thought to provide around one-third of Israel's fresh water supply. Water from the territory flows into the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River.

Other than its strategic significance - the Golan is the only land border between Israel and Syria - the territory is also used by Israelis for leisure purposes. The area counts an Israeli ski resort and several vineyards.

Trump's logic in handing the Golan to Israel was simple, and one which he clearly explained on Fox News.

It was very much like his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. "I was inundated with calls from all over the world, the leaders, mostly the leaders saying 'please don't do it, don't do it'. I did it and it's been done and it's fine."

In other words, "I got away with Jerusalem, so I can get away with the Golan."

In God's name

Piece by piece, dunam by dunam, Trump and Netanyahu have dismantled a Palestinian state and any negotiated means to obtain one. Trump has ended all US contributions to UNWRA, the UN agency that has become chief employer, educator and sustainer of the Palestinian refugee camps.

US President Donald Trump (L) and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a Golan Heights proclamation on 25 March, 2019 in Washington (AFP)
Donald Trump (L) and Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a Golan Heights proclamation on 25 March 2019 in Washington (AFP)

He will deny visas to lawyers for the International Criminal Court investigating Israeli war crimes. He has declared anti-Zionism anti-Semitic. He has taken Jerusalem and Golan Heights off the table and now declared that occupiers can keep the land they conquered. And he has done all this in God’s name.

Could it be, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked, that President Trump is destined to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace?

Trump has taken Jerusalem and Golan Heights off the table and now declared occupiers can keep the land they conquered

"As a Christian, I certainly believe that's possible," Pompeo, who was visiting Israel, replied.

"It was remarkable - so we were down in the tunnels where we could see 3,000 years ago, and 2,000 years ago - if I have the history just right -  to see the remarkable history of the faith in this place and the work that our administration's done to make sure that this democracy in the Middle East, that this Jewish state remains," he said.

"I am confident that the Lord is at work here," Pompeo concluded.

A new mandate

This is what Trump, fettered by an ongoing Mueller inquiry, has already achieved. What will Trump, unchained from these constraints, now do in the Middle East? What would a new mandate for Trump and a re-elected Netanyahu look like for the Palestinians?

The first target in this salami slice war will be the annexation of Area C, which contains most of the settlers and constitutes 61 per cent of the territory of the West Bank. The second will be the imposition of a pliant successor to a moribund Mahmoud Abbas. The third would be a military offensive in Gaza to finish Hamas off once and for all.

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Trump is right. To their undying shame, the Western-backed leaders of the Arab states are all cheering him on.

The next generation of Arab leaders, Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, have clearly placed their own trading and security relationship with Israel over their fathers' historic pledges to protect and fight for the Palestinians.

They have stopped even pretending to maintain the boycott of the state they have yet to recognise, pending an agreed Palestinian settlement.

 All are silent about the destruction of the Palestinian claim in this conflict.

Drunk with power

The Palestinians are well and truly alone. Trump and Netanyahu, two of the most destructive leaders for the Middle East, are drunk with power.

A drunk is about the last person to sense the dangers that rational and sober people see.

From 1948 to 1965, the Palestinians stayed dormant against Israel with no leaders to represent them, but they emerged to form a resistance movement in Fatah and other groups, whose cause united the Arab world and dominated it for three decades.

Inaction does not equal acquiescence. The absence today of a Palestinian leadership that can win rights and land for an occupied people does not amount to surrender. It's not game over.

Soberly, the only other flag to be seen in the seas of pro-democracy campaigners in Algiers is the Palestinian one. Rationally, the state of Israel is as hated and feared on the Arab street as it has ever been. Arab leaders whose legitimacy is paper thin depend on Israel as never before.

 A Palestinian protester waves his national flag as smoke billows from burning tyres during a demonstration along the border between the Gaza strip and Israel on 8 June, 2018 (AFP)
A Palestinian protester waves his national flag as smoke billows from burning tyres during a demonstration along the border between the Gaza strip and Israel on 8 June 2018 (AFP)

Any new wave of the Arab Spring, which we might well be seeing in Algeria, would change that.

The great mass of Arab public opinion, abandoned and suppressed by its leaders, will not stay still or inert. It will start to move in other directions. Europe is out of touch and consumed with its own disunity. Russia is out of the game. 

The next war

That leaves two regional powers left to keep the Palestinian torch aflame - Turkey and Iran. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now plans to convert Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a mosque in direct response to Trump's recognition of Israel's claims over East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

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Originally built as a cathedral by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul and then converted into a museum by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

The move is a clear signal that two can play the game of moving religious furniture around in a sensitive region. 

"Now, Trump tries to declare Jerusalem as [Israel's] capital. He is giving Golan Heights to occupier Israel. Of course you will get a response from Turkey," he said.

Trump, as George W Bush before him, terminally misunderstands how the Middle East works. Iran expands as a regional power in the vacuum created by Western overreach, miscalculation and eventually withdrawal. All it has to do is wait for the prize to drop in its lap.

Right now, Iran's most effective pro-consul, Qassem Soleimani, is meeting every single Sunni Arab group and politician that he can - Iraqi, Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian. All those who fought Iran and Hezbollah bitterly in Syria are now finding a new ear and a new interlocutor in this man. 

Trump and Netanyahu are not conquering the Middle East, but they could well be re-aligning it for the next war to come. Israel, unleashed and unbound, is the last power on earth to see clearly the damage it is doing and the generations of conflict it is engendering. 

The winner takes all. It will indeed but not in the way it imagines now.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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