Notwithstanding the constant polarisation that especially his domestic words and deeds seem to generate, on some foreign policy matters President Trump seems to have very wide American support.
A case in point is his recently announced Afghanistan policy.
Candidate Trump campaigned against increasing America’s military role there and was very clear that he was specifically opposed to sending any more US troops to Afghanistan. He was scathing about the cost to America in terms of lives and money and called it a “total disaster”.
On August the 21st, President Trump announced an unspecified increase in the number of US soldiers he would deploy to Afghanistan, contrary to his campaign position. He also announced that US policy would no longer be directed to nation building, but rather to the elimination of terrorists. Moreover he put pressure on Pakistan to dramatically improve its game and amongst other things, to cease allowing safe haven for those terrorists who keep slipping over the border.
And there was virtually universal praise for his announcement.
Trump explained his changed policy as follows:
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like to follow my instincts.
I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office.”
Similar sentiments have also been heard repeatedly from successive Israeli Prime Ministers on how different things look when sitting in the top job.
What is also clear is that Trump’s administration is still trying to work out how it should operate and there is a lot of internal jockeying for his ear.
Steve Bannon in all policy areas, had been urging Trump to stick to his campaign promises and therefore argued against the new Afghanistan policy.
For the six month period as Trump’s chief strategist, Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law Kushner, continually clashed, including on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
According to a report in Variety magazine last week, Bannon had strongly lobbied Trump to fulfil his campaign promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and pushed the President to adopt a tougher stance toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Both of which Kushner allegedly opposed.
When Abbas met with Trump at the White House in May, Bannon boycotted the meeting in protest.
“I’m not going to breathe the same air as that terrorist,”
he texted a friend at the time according to the magazine.
Having disagreed with Trump in a number of areas, Bannon, not understanding the transition from campaigning to actually holding office, was fired by Trump.
As compared to the situation in Afghanistan – we see two further different approaches by President Trump when it comes to Israel.
On the Israeli/Palestinian track, Trump himself has neither endorsed nor rejected the two state solution. He is keeping his powder dry.
For those who seek a deal, this seems to be the smart approach.
Aside from personally speaking with King Abdullah of Jordan from time to time and praising him for resolving the Temple Mount/Israeli Embassy in Jordan issues, Trump remains interested but aloof.
This week he spoke directly with Egyptian President Al-Sisi.
He has spoken directly virtually not at all, with Prime Minister Netanyahu, for some time.
Trump has left his A team, Kushner and Greenblatt as well as Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Dina Powell, to talk directly to Netanyahu and to deal with the shuttle diplomacy they have engaged in, in anticipation of coming in later and “closing the deal” if one appears viable.
He keeps all of the Middle East actors playing the same game – not wanting to upset the President.
Dina Powell is easily the most accomplished of the three Trump representatives when it comes to international political matters. She is Egyptian born into a middle class Coptic Christian family and is fluent in Arabic. Powell has lived almost all of her life in the US and is a lifelong Republican. She also served in the George W. Bush administration.
Of the three she is the only one with previous diplomatic experience and is considered a policy heavyweight.
Powell accompanied President Trump on his first foreign trip which began in Saudi Arabia and is known for not conforming to expected dress in Arab countries. She was not backward about ensuring a headline speech included references to the lack of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.
As the trio arrived in Israel after visiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan where they were told that only the two state solution is viable, the US State Department, which has also held for decades that this is the only policy on the table, surprised with a changed position:
“We are not going to state what the outcome has to be”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
“It has to be workable to both sides. That’s the best view as to not really bias one side over the other, to make sure that they can work through it.”
Interestingly the trio met with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu issued the following statement after the meeting:
“We discussed ways to promote peace and prosperity in the region. The talks were helpful and meaningful,”
and that Netanyahu
“expects the talks to continue in the coming weeks.”
The statement added that
“the Prime Minister expressed his appreciation to President Trump and the Trump administration for its strong support of Israel.”
The trio then moved on to meet Abbas in Ramallah. The Palestinians had been making more negative noises about the Trump administration’s intentions but after the meeting Abbas said:
“We know that this issue is difficult and complex, but nothing is impossible in the face of good efforts. We affirm that this US delegation is working toward peace, and we are working with it to achieve soon what Trump called the ‘peace deal’”.
“President Trump is very optimistic and hopes for a better future for the Palestinian people and the Israeli people. We hope they can work together and live together for many years and have a much better life.”
So, despite some leaks from Arab media then firmly denied by the White House, status quo ante. All sides back to praising Trump and his efforts, no clarity on “the deal”, but shuttle diplomacy to continue and all parties anxious to not upset the US President.
For Israel, the immediate issue however is not the Israel/Palestinian track, but Syria and how things are shaping up there.
What is happening in Syria is of the utmost importance to Israel’s current and future security.
This is THE number one issue for Israel today and has been for some time.
And here Trump appears to be dangerously distracted, disinterested and disengaged.
Trump approach style number three.
In effect in regards to Syria, Trump continues Obama’s policy of limited US involvement in conflict zones.
Trump was focused on defeating ISIS – even if that was mainly to be done by the Russians, Assad and the Iranians.
And then on supporting the ceasefire deal he, Trump, brokered with Putin in early July at the G20 summit.
Unfortunately for Israel, this cease fire deal leaves Assad in power and brings Iran to Israel’s border.
Whilst for Israel ISIS was a tactical issue, the strategic issue is Iran and its attempts to dominate Syria, fill the vacuum there and create a crescent corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean.
According to Israeli security sources, Israel is expecting to find itself under the threat of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who will be stationed right on the border in the Golan Heights. On its doorstep Israel will be facing the threat of new rockets that would be manufactured at the factory Iran has built near Aleppo, which will be given to Hezbollah. It will also be facing the threat of thousands of fighters from Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias.
Netanyahu has publicly criticised Trump on the Syrian arrangement and he has been pushing the Americans to not support a final peace deal in Syria that allows Iran to keep and/or increase its grip on Syria.
Last week Netanyahu again flew to Russia to meet with Putin and took Mossad chief Yossi Cohen with him to share “sensitive, credible and very disturbing detailed intelligence” on Iran’s military efforts in Syria.
The previous week a delegation had flown to the US to share the same evidence, but returned extremely disappointed that they had failed to get any American commitment regarding the Syrian situation.
With the US disinterested and the Russians dominant, Israel has been trying as a fall-back position, to ensure that at least the Russians understand Israel’s red lines.
And that Russia will continue to understand them as Israel takes action to prevent Iran and her proxy’s military build-up. In particular Israel needs to stop Iranian attempts to transfer missiles and other sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah
The arrangement with Russia and Putin’s understanding/acceptance of Israeli continued military action in Syria is vital.
The good news?
On the 14th of August outgoing Israeli Air Force Chief Amir Eshel revealed that over the past five years IAF jets had carried out almost one hundred airstrikes against Syrian and Hezbollah arms convoys.
Although some of these actions were known publicly, the extent was not.
These strikes have been done with precision, with at least tacit Russian agreement, with no mishaps in communication between Israel and Russia and without escalation into another war.
Despite having to do so virtually alone, this shows what Israel can achieve in both the military and diplomatic spheres to secure her future.
These abilities should give us some basis for cautious optimism despite whatever the larger geopolitical climate may bring.
Dr. Ron Weiser AM is the Zionist Federation of Australia Public Affairs Chairman and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.