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Trump's Middle East 'peace deals' are nothing more than an election ploy

Lacking a foreign policy, the US president tailors every action to curry favour with domestic constituencies
US President Donald Trump speaks in Washington on 28 September (AFP)

Election polls show Donald Trump’s presidential campaign sputtering, with the incumbent trailing in almost every swing state he won in the 2016 election. 

He must devise ways to hold the base that brought him to power. But unlike conventional US presidential campaigns, Trump's campaign is not designed to draw in new supporters or independents from outside the circle that swept him to the White House.  

Turning Arab states from enemies to friends of Israel will be seen in these circles as the fulfillment of biblical prophecies

Rather than expand the base, Trump’s goal is to give his true believers a reason to come out to the polls in force. In this way, he’s defying almost every presidential campaign on record - and it’s questionable as to whether it can work.

One of the results of this appeal to his core supporters is the recent spate of normalisation deals (aka “peace deals”) engineered by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with the UAE, Bahrain and Israel. 

Though Trump and Kushner are trumpeting these agreements as gifts to a “good friend”, Israel is not actually the intended audience. Trump’s evangelical base, a massive voting bloc, is the real target. As Trump told Fox and Friends: “It’s an incredible thing for Israel, [and] it’s incredible for the evangelicals, by the way. The evangelicals love Israel. Love Israel.”

It’s no accident that when Kushner unveiled the new US embassy in Jerusalem, the US delegation included leading pastors in the evangelical movement, including John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. Among other insulting comments the latter has made about various religions, he once said that Jews were going to hell

With more than 40 percent of Americans identifying as evangelical Christians, this potentially offers a rich harvest for Trump. Turning Arab states from enemies to friends of Israel will be seen in these circles as the fulfilment of biblical prophecies.

Trump political appointees have suggested that even more Arab states will join the “peace train”, including Morocco, Sudan, and the real coup, Saudi Arabia.

Neither the UAE nor Bahrain would sign any deal with Israel without the express agreement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Is it possible that the Saudis would join the parade with their own signing ceremony within days of the November election? It would be Trump’s October surprise.

Incoherent strategy

There is one key constituency omitted from all these considerations: American Jews. Jewish American votes have leaned Democratic for decades. In the 2016 election, only 25 percent of Jewish American voters opted for Trump. The majority of them don’t support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government; it’s far from clear that they support normalisation, at least in this context.

According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year, 42 percent of Jewish Americans said Trump’s policies favour the Israelis too much, while 47 percent said he strikes the right balance between Israelis and Palestinians.

It’s a radical departure for a president to craft a policy towards Israel that leaves the majority of American Jews, especially the young, indifferent, at best. But these are the strange times we’re living in.

It’s also accepted wisdom that American presidents must have a coherent Middle East foreign policy strategy. The policy may not work, and it may be based on false assumptions, but at least it can be called a policy. Trump is, once again, the first president to break with this approach.

Trump attends an event honouring evangelical leaders in Washington in 2018 (AFP)
Trump attends an event honouring evangelical leaders in Washington in 2018 (AFP)

He doesn’t have a foreign policy. Every action is designed to curry favour with domestic constituencies. The normalisation agreements appeal to evangelicals, while the rejection of international agreements (the Paris climate change agreement, the International Criminal Court, the China trade war) cater to hardcore Republican isolationists. The military withdrawals from Syria and Iraq appeal to the same constituency. 

Similarly, Trump believed that the power of his personality could romance Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But all of this failed, because there was no well-thought-out policy underpinning the one-on-one summits.

The agreements Kushner has engineered are not based on shared values or common goals. The main beneficiaries will be Israeli arms dealers and cyber-spy companies eager to sell their products to these repressive dictatorships, which rely on such means of social control. They will also fuel an increasing arms race with Iran, as the signatories share a hatred and mistrust of Tehran and its regional allies.

This is an exceedingly slender reed to support an entire foreign policy.

Israeli apartheid

Americans concerned about the US role in fuelling massive conflict in the region should examine other, not-so-sanguine elements in this new Arab-Israeli alliance.

Many Americans have long thought of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East”, the cradle of three religions, where Christians, Muslims and Jews enjoy freedom of worship. None of this was ever really true, but it was the commonly accepted notion.

In reality, Israel has become an apartheid state based on separation from, and discrimination against, non-Jewish citizens. It has become a theocratic state in which religion dominates politics. It has become an ethnocracy in which citizens of one religion dominate those of another.  

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Israel’s leadership, under Netanyahu and his far-right Likud Party, has more in common with the white Christo-supremacist ideology of European states such as Poland and Hungary, than it does with western democracies against which Israel has always sought to be judged.

That is one of many reasons why Israel has found common cause with its new Arab allies. These states are themselves intolerant, corrupt and authoritarian - all qualities they share with Israel.

US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden doesn’t seem to have learned this lesson. He is still living in those halcyon days when liberal Zionists and their allies viewed Israel as a light unto the nations. He appears to believe this is what the majority of American Jews believe. But they don’t - at least not anymore.

Shiny trinkets

The truth is that this is the view of the Israel lobby, and that’s the source of much of the funding for Democratic presidential campaigns. This is yet another example of the power of money to corrupt politics. If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then money corrupts and immense amounts of it (which the lobby doles out to its favoured candidates) corrupts absolutely.

Though many pundits are hailing these normalisation deals as a harbinger of major change in the region - and a major victory for Trump and Netanyahu - they are little more than shiny trinkets, meant to bedazzle a narrow section of the American electorate. 

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

Richard Silverstein
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)