A Year of The Trump Administration: The Situation in The Middle Eastby Brie Stimson February 26, 2018
Professor Jacob Goldberg spoke to SDJJ ahead of his 16th annual Middle East lecture series at the Lawrence Family JCC about Trump’s first year, Israel’s relationship with Russia and the threat from Iran. The interview has been edited for space.
SDJJ: How has the Trump administration’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel affected tensions in the region?
JG: Contrary to expectations that it would generate a lot of violence, the violence has been really minimal and just in the first few days after, and there’s several reasons for that.
Number one is that the Palestinians are probably tired of another Intifada and of rising again in resistance; and secondly, there is a leadership problem there as Abbas, who [will be 83 in March], has lost much of his legitimacy, but in the absence of an alternative leadership the people are still listening to him, and he is opposed to any armed resistance. He consistently speaks against another Intifada; and the third reason is that the Arab states, which would have in the past encouraged people to rise in a new Intifada, they’re not really interested that much anymore in the Palestinian problem. They have more crucial issues related to their security because of Iran. So Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states – they don’t get too much involved in the Palestinian problem. As a matter of fact, they have more common interests with Israel than with the Palestinians. So, all in all, there hasn’t been real backlash to the Trump recognition.
SDJJ: How do people in the region feel about the declaration?
JG: Palestinians are definitely not happy about it. They think that Jerusalem should have been part of the political process and negotiations, and not determined by Trump unilaterally ahead of negotiations.
For Israelis, some are very happy that at long last after 70 years the United States has finally recognized that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. And mind you, it’s not that Trump recognized all of Jerusalem, he just recognized what Israel has recognized that Jerusalem is its capital.
Other Israelis don’t really care too much of that recognition, thinking that it doesn’t make any difference because we have treated Jerusalem as our capital for seven decades, and the fact that the U.S. now finally accepted that reality doesn’t really change any facts on the ground. It’s more of a gesture or more of a symbol but not really something that can change the substance of developments here.
SDJJ: What’s Israel’s assessment one year into Trump’s presidency?
JG: It’s very hard to answer this question because it depends on who you would ask in Israel. There will be at least 1,000 different answers to a question like this. But, generally speaking … and this is especially after the eight years of Obama – Obama has been perceived in Israel as not too sympathetic and not too friendly even though from the security relationship point of view he has been one of the best presidents that Israel has ever had, but the perception is that he was not a friend of Israel.
And, as opposed to Obama, Trump is perceived now as being a friend, sympathetic, very understanding of Israeli sensitivities and sensibilities and vulnerabilities and so from that perspective it’s a positive development. Others would say that Trump’s value is confined merely to rhetoric, that he’s great on statements and speeches on Israel, but in terms of his general Middle East policy he has done little that serves Israel’s strategic interests. He speaks a lot about Iran being an enemy of the United States and whose influence is to be [checked] and curtailed, but he hasn’t done anything in Syria for example to prevent Iran from establishing a presence in Syria. So for other Israelis, except for being very friendly, his presidency is not perceived as making a big difference. On substantive issues it is perceived more as a continuation of Obama’s.
SDJJ: What are some misconceptions about the Middle East from both administrations?
JG: The State Department Director of the Middle East section, [David Satterfield], made a statement that the number one priority of the United States in the region is the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), and this was precisely the same priority of the Obama administration. And to most Israelis this is sheer insanity. ISIS is a group. It’s an organization. It doesn’t threaten any Middle East country. It doesn’t threaten the stability of the Middle East. How can one compare the danger of ISIS with the multi-faceted danger that Iran poses to almost all countries in the Middle East? Not just Israel, I’m talking primarily Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt – all the pro Western countries in the region.
If Iran, which is still determined at the end of the day to have nuclear weapons, if Iran, which develops ballistic missiles, if Iran, which is working to destabilize all the regimes in the Middle East, if Iran that is now interested in creating a military presence in Syria next to the Golan Heights, and it is the same Iran that turns the Lebanese people into hostages because it wants to fight Israel by proxy through Hezbollah. So ISIS is a priority of such a superpower as the United States? This is totally inconceivable for most Israelis and Arabs. And, in this respect it’s the same as Obama. We don’t see any difference. Or for example the Trump administration continues to supply weapons to Lebanon without understanding that Lebanon, for all practical purposes, is dominated by Hezbollah, which is a proxy of Iran. So to give weapons to Lebanon equals giving weapons to Hezbollah, which the United States itself designated as a terrorist organization. So that doesn’t make any sense, and I could go on and on with the Trump administration giving to Russia a free hand in Syria, not restraining Iran, not stopping the Turkish invasion of the northern part of Syria and the Turkish fight against the Kurds, which are the allies of the United States, so in all these respects we don’t really see a major difference between the Trump administration’s policies and those of Obama.
SDJJ: What is Israel’s relationship with Russia?
JG: It’s a really tough question because there is a mixed record. On the one hand, Israel has a very good relationship with Russia and one can say that the personal relationship between our Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russia’s President Putin is very close, some would say even intimate. Netanyahu is the foreign leader that president Putin has met more times … than any other head of state in the world – seven times in just the last two and a half years.
The major problem however now is that for the first time … Russia has a military presence in a country bordering on Israel. I’m talking about Syria. Russia has now two major bases – an air force base and a naval base – in Syria, and practically speaking Russia controls now the Syrian president Assad who knows all too well that without the Russian intervention he would have lost the civil war and would have been out of the country … And this [Russian] military presence is a strategic problem for Israel because in addition to Russia there is a growing Iranian presence there. As I said before the Iranians are trying to create a [military] presence next to Israel very much like they have in Lebanon with Hezbollah. In other words, I would say they are trying to create a Hezbollah in Syria along the same lines that they succeeded in Lebanon. The problem is that Russia does not stop Iran from establishing itself in Syria and this is the essence of the Netanyahu-Putin meetings: Israel has made it abundantly clear that it would not allow Iran to create military bases in Syria like in Lebanon, but in order to do that Israel has to make sure that the Russians would not prevent Israel from operating against Iran. The military collision that took place on February 10th is just the first indication to the danger I am pointing at: If the Russians do not stop the Iranian entrenchment in Syria, it is very likely that we’ll see more wide-range military confrontations between Israel and Iran.
SDJJ: Vice President Mike Pence visited the Middle East in January. Do you think his trip helped the United States’ efforts in the region?
JG: The visit didn’t really have any impact in any direction on American standing in the Middle East. The Israelis concluded [that Pence] is deeply pro-Israel. His speech in the Knesset moved a lot of Israelis because he spoke as a real Zionist. On the other hand, Palestinians listening to his speeches are more convinced than before that this administration is completely biased to Israel and cannot really serve as an honest broker. But this has to do with the speeches – but the visit itself has no real tangible results or repercussions.
SDJJ: What will you be talking about in your JCC lectures?
JG: I will actually try something this time that I haven’t done before. Instead of just giving an overview of the major issues in the Middle East, in the first lecture and the second lecture I will focus on one particular country that has been playing a major role in the Middle East.
In the first lecture it will be Iran. I will explain the Iranian political system because there have been a lot of misunderstandings of what Iran is. People know there is a president and people know that there is a supreme leader, but people don’t understand the interaction between the two of them and who is the real power broker in the system.
And in the second night, the country I will highlight will be Saudi Arabia. First and foremost because the new crown prince there has made revolutionary changes that revolutionized the whole Saudi system, political system, the royal family system, the economic system. He has revolutionized almost every area, every field in Saudi political life. So the question is whether Saudi Arabia can be still stable after such revolutionary changes, and whether he can really survive and whether he has not alienated some of the major sources of power in Saudi Arabia to make them interested in launching a revolution against the royal family. So the actions of the crown prince who is only 32 and the way they affect not just Saudi Arabia but the entire Middle East will be the highlight of the second lecture.
Professor Goldberg will be speaking at the Lawrence Family JCC March 12, 13 and 14. Details can be found at sdcjc.org.