Violence undermines Trump’s ‘New Middle East’ boast


WASHINGTON – It was, proclaimed President Donald J. Trump in September, “the dawn of a new Middle East.”

Speaking at the White House, Mr. Trump announced new diplomatic agreements between Israel and two of its Gulf Arab neighbors, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

“After decades of division and conflict,” said Mr. Trump, flanked by regional leaders in a scene later replayed in his campaign ads, the Abraham Accords laid “the foundation for comprehensive peace in the world. the whole region ”.

Eight months later, such a peace remains a distant hope, especially for the most intractable conflict in the Middle East, that between Israel and the Palestinians. In fiery scenes that are too reminiscent of the old Middle East, this conflict has entered its bloodiest phase in seven years and renews criticism of Mr. Trump’s approach while raising questions about the future of the agreements as President Biden confronts the role the United States should play. now play in the region.

Mr. Trump’s approach was essentially to sidestep the challenge of reducing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians in favor of promoting closer ties between Israel and some of the Sunni Arab states, based largely on their shared concerns. concerning Iran.

The deals he helped negotiate were widely seen as demonstrating a waning interest on the part of some of Israel’s Arab neighbors in supporting the Palestinians, giving Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more leeway to pursue strategies that have further intensified Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

“It was very difficult for anyone who knew the region to believe that the signing of the Abrahamic Accords was going to be a breakthrough for peace,” said Zaha Hassan, researcher at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in Palestinian issues.

Vali Nasr, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said the agreements were “based on the idea that the Palestinian question is dead” and rewarded Mr. Netanyahu’s radical approach to supporting the activity. of Israeli colonization and other extended territorial claims.

“It was proof of his theory that you can have land and peace,” Nasr said.

Former Trump officials claim that although the hyperbolic ex-president billed for the Abraham’s Accords, which were later expanded to include Morocco and Sudan, they were never seen as a way to settle the Israeli conflict. -Palestinian.

On the contrary, the deal, which expanded trade and partially or fully normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and the four Arab states, amounted more to a rebuke from the Palestinians by demonstrating that their cause no longer defined relations in the region.

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The Sunni Arab rulers, enraged by the Palestinian leadership and quietly lining up for years with Israel against Shia Iran, were moving forward.

Jason Greenblatt, who served as Trump’s envoy to the Middle East until October 2019, argued that the current spasm of violence in and around Israel “underscores why Abraham’s accords are so essential for the region ”.

After the Palestinian leadership categorically rejected a January 2020 Trump peace plan proposing to create a Palestinian state, on terms strongly geared towards Israeli demands, the accords intentionally “separated” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Israel’s relations. with the Arab world, Greenblatt said.

They “took away the right of veto from the Palestinians to move the region forward,” he added.

Others noted that before agreeing to the deals, the UAE extracted a pledge from Netanyahu to delay a potential annexation of parts of the West Bank, a move that had the potential to spark a major Palestinian uprising. (Trump officials also opposed such an annexation and Mr. Netanyahu might not have followed through anyway.)

Dennis Ross, a former Middle East peace negotiator who served under three presidents, called the agreements a significant milestone for the region, but said the violence in Israel’s cities and Gaza illustrated how “the Palestinian issue may still cast a cloud “over Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors.

“The idea that this was ‘peace in our time’ clearly ignored the only existential conflict in the region. It was not between Israel and the Arab states, ”Ross said.

Most analysts say the agreements – which Biden administration officials say they support and would even like to expand to include more countries – can survive the current violence. After all, officials involved in crafting the deal say no one had any illusion that such clashes were a thing of the past.

But the images of Israeli police crackdown on Arabs in Jerusalem and airstrikes toppling skyscrapers in Gaza clearly cause tensions.

In a statement last week, the UAE Foreign Ministry issued a “strong condemnation” of Israel’s proposed evictions in East Jerusalem and a police attack on Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, where Israeli officials said the Palestinians had stored stones to be thrown at the Israeli police.

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Last month, the UAE also denounced “acts of violence committed by right-wing extremist groups in occupied East Jerusalem” and warned that the region could “sink into new levels of instability in a way that threatens the peace”.

Bahrain and other Gulf states condemned Israel in a similar tone. A statement issued on Friday by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan called on “all parties,” not just Israel, to exercise restraint and seek a ceasefire.

A former Trump official has argued that public pressure on Israel from countries like the UAE and Bahrain carries more weight after the deals, coming as they do from new official diplomatic partners. However, none of the governments that are party to the agreements play a major role in efforts to achieve a ceasefire – a responsibility assumed in the past by Egypt and Qatar.

“It is Abraham’s non-Accord Arabs who will really play a central role in bringing this conflagration to an end,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser on Arab-Israeli issues under the leadership of six secretaries of state. .

Speaking last month at an event hosted by the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the Biden administration “welcomes and supports” the Abrahamic Accords , adding that he expected “Israel’s group of friends to expand even further in the coming year.” “

But with dozens dead and hundreds injured since then, mostly Palestinians, analysts say the prospect of other Arab countries joining the agreements looks grim.

“I would say it’s very, highly unlikely that anyone else would join the agreements,” Mr. Nasr. “He’s going to lose a lot of his momentum and energy.”

One nation seen as a potential candidate, Saudi Arabia, has issued some of Israel’s strongest condemnations in recent days. A Saudi Foreign Ministry statement called on the international community to “hold the Israeli occupation accountable for this escalation and immediately end its escalating actions, which violate all international norms and laws.”

Some analysts and officials in the Biden administration say the agreements were the culmination of four years of Trump policies that embraced and empowered Mr. Netanyahu and isolated Palestinians. Mr Trump’s approach, they said, has all but stifled hopes for a negotiated two-state solution pursued by several former US presidents and tipped the balance of power from official Palestinian leadership to extremists Hamas in Gaza.

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Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official, admitted that Israel has also clashed with Palestinians under Democratic administrations who have taken a more impartial approach to the conflict than Mr. Trump’s bluntly pro-Israel stance.

And he said the opportunistic missile attacks against Israel by Hamas after the eruption of Judeo-Arab violence in Jerusalem were not Mr. Trump’s fault.

But Mr. Goldenberg argued that the current intestinal violence in Israel was “at least partially motivated by the Trump administration supporting extremist elements in Israel at every stage of the process,” including the Israeli settlement movement. .

In November 2019, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo changed long-standing American policy by declaring that the United States does not view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a violation of international law. (The Biden administration intends to reverse this position once a review by government attorneys is completed.)

“You had David Friedman” – Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Jerusalem – “literally knocking down the walls of holy places with a hammer and saying it’s Israeli,” Goldenberg said.

Mr Trump also moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, officially recognizing the city as the capital of Israel, in a move that has infuriated Palestinians who have long expected East Jerusalem to be the capital. of any future state they establish.

“Trump has opened the door to Israel to speed up house demolitions, speed up settlement activity,” Ms. Hassan said. “And when that happens and you see Israel acting on it, that’s when you see Palestinian resistance.”

Former Trump officials note that expert predictions of a Palestinian eruption during Mr. Trump’s tenure, especially after the embassy move, never came true, and suggest that Mr. Biden to the Palestinians – including the reinstatement of humanitarian aid that Mr Trump had canceled – encouraged them to challenge Israel.

Even some Trump administration officials have said that the suggestions by Mr. Trump and others that the deals amount to peace in the Middle East are overblown.

“During my time in the White House, I have always urged people not to use that term,” Mr. Greenblatt said.