Trump Isn’t Repeating Obama’s Middle East Mistakes: Jonathan S. Tobin, National Review, Feb. 3, 2017— By the end of his second week in office, President Donald Trump has discovered it is actually possible for him to do something that garners applause from the mainstream media.
Russia's Mideast Dominance Growing: Dr. Netanel Avneri, Israel Hayom, Jan. 31, 2017— The Middle East has experienced firsthand Russia's significantly growing influence on the global state of affairs, as a result of the rise of the Islamic State group and general instability in the region.
Sunni States' Military Spending Sprees Could Fall to Radical Islamists: Yaakov Lappin, IPT, Feb. 7, 2017— Faced with an array of developing threats to their stability and survival, Sunni Arab states have gone on an unprecedented military spending spree…
The Six-Day War Was a Watershed in Middle Eastern History: Asher Susser, Fathom, Spring, 2017 — The 1967 War was a watershed in Middle Eastern history.
U.S., Middle East Allies Explore Arab Military Coalition: Maria Abi-Habib, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15, 2017
Trump, China, and the Middle East: Roie Yellinek, BESA, Feb. 7, 2017
China and the Middle East – a Rapidly Changing Picture: Tim Collard, China.org, Feb. 8, 2017
How the World Turned Against Israel: an Interview with Joshua Muravchik: Fathom, Autumn, 2014
Jonathan S. Tobin
National Review, Feb. 3, 2017
By the end of his second week in office, President Donald Trump has discovered it is actually possible for him to do something that garners applause from the mainstream media. Though Democrats seem more interested in futile gestures of “resistance” to his government than in normal opposition, all Trump had to do to gain a modicum of respect from the New York Times and other denizens of the liberal echo chamber was to preserve rather than reject the policies of his predecessor. Or at least that was how the Times and the talking heads on CNN and MSNBC perceived the new administration’s statements about Israel, Iran, and Russia this week. In reality, the claim that, as the front-page headline in Friday’s Times put it, “Trump Reverts to Pillars of Obama Foreign Policy,” is actually dead wrong when applied to the Middle East.
The Times story treated administration statements about Israeli settlements, sanctions against Iran, and Russian aggression against Ukraine as proof that Trump was backing away from efforts to reverse President Obama’s policies. The jury is still out on what direction the administration will take toward Russia, though this week’s statements from U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley signaled the administration’s continued opposition to Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, which should give hope to those who believe the president’s crush on Vladimir Putin needs to be nipped in the bud.
With respect to the Middle East, however, the effort to interpret administration statements as an embrace of Obama’s policies — namely his unprecedented pressure on Israel and his desire for détente with Iran — are simply false. The argument that Trump is embracing Obama’s approach centers on one statement from White House press secretary Sean Spicer: While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful. That can be reasonably interpreted as opposing the creation of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But its first clause is a complete and total rejection of the repeated assertions of both Obama and former secretary of state John Kerry that settlements are the primary obstacle in the way of a peace deal.
Spicer’s words are actually a declaration that Trump is embracing the terms of President George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to the Israeli government, in which Bush said that changes on the ground since 1967 would have to be taken into account in any peace agreement. In practice, Bush made it clear that meant Israel would keep parts of Eastern Jerusalem as well as the major settlement blocs erected near the 1967 lines, where more than 80 percent of West Bank settlers live. Just as important, he signaled that new construction in those areas would not be considered an issue by the United States. Bush’s position was explicitly rejected by Obama, who consistently blamed Israel for the failure of his efforts to broker peace no matter what the Palestinians did, and advanced the belief that 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and the blocs were just as “illegal” as the most remote hilltop settlement in the middle of the West Bank.
As to the question of “new settlements,” according to the Obama administration, Israel never stopped building them in vast numbers. Indeed, in December Obama’s deputy National Security Council adviser actually defended the administration’s decision to allow a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel to pass by claiming that the Israelis had been constructing “tens of thousands” of new settlements. The claim was, of course, rubbish.
In fact, there are only approximately 230 settlements in the West Bank including those unauthorized by Israeli law. When Israel’s critics speak of its government’s building “new settlements,” they are referring to the erection of new houses or apartments in existing communities. So the announcement this week that Israel is building several-hundred new homes in Jerusalem and West Bank settlements does not actually fall under Spicer’s definition of construction that “may not be helpful” to the efforts toward a peace deal. The new administration appears to understand, as Obama never did, that the biggest obstacle to peace is the Palestinians…
On Iran, those arguing that Trump has come around to Obama’s point of view are on even shakier ground. According to the Times, Trump’s decision to impose new sanctions on Iran for its violations of U.N. resolutions forbidding them to test ballistic missiles is proof that he is reverting to one of the “pillars” of Obama’s strategy. Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, however, was contingent on America’s agreeing to dismantle international sanctions. And while Trump has not torn up the deal — a move that would involve its other signatories — he has pledged to try to enforce it more strictly than Obama, and he appears determined to hold the Iranians accountable for non-nuclear misbehavior such as their support for international terrorism.
While Trump has not yet moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as he promised during the campaign, he has already made it clear that Obama’s quest for more “daylight” between the two allies is over. Only someone who expects Trump to take positions to the right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements and the two-state solution — Netanyahu has restrained the growth of the former and publicly backs the latter — could characterize the new administration’s policies as being reminiscent of Obama’s.
Predicting what Donald Trump will ultimately do in the Middle East or anywhere else is a fool’s errand. But if there is any one overarching theme to his foreign policy it is a rejection of his predecessor’s approach. Trump has already shown an understanding that Obama’s misguided Middle East preoccupations weakened the U.S. position and made the region a more dangerous place. He may make mistakes of his own in the next four years, but it is highly unlikely that he will repeat those of his predecessor.
Dr. Netanel Avneri
Israel Hayom, Jan. 31, 2017
The Middle East has experienced firsthand Russia's significantly growing influence on the global state of affairs, as a result of the rise of the Islamic State group and general instability in the region. The moral and symbolic victory in Syria's "Stalingrad" — the battle over Aleppo — has elevated the image of an aggressive Russia in the region and around the world. Conversely, the steps the Russians are taking toward mediating peace make it clear they are the ones who call the shots in the country.
First, Russia worked with Turkey, which supports the Sunni opposition forces, to advance a cease-fire deal across Syria (with the exception of the war on Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the Nusra Front) that included a humanitarian passageway in eastern Aleppo to allow the exit of civilians and rebels. As of today, Russian military police are the ones preventing sectarian violence by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian and Shiite adjuncts toward Sunni citizens. Moreover, Russia was the first to endorse the Astana peace conference between the Assad regime and representatives from the opposition in Kazakhstan earlier this month. If it were up to Assad and the Iranians, there would not be peace talks but a settling of scores, but the Russian interest in Syria is the deciding factor, and it is based on economic and strategic, not ethnic, interests.
As it works to implement peace initiatives, Moscow has increased the number of attack aircraft in the country. There is evidence of work to expand its aircraft and naval bases on the Syrian coast despite Russia's promise to decrease its military presence there. In Baghdad, there is a permanent Russian presence in the joint intelligence center it shares with Iraq, Syria and Iran, which was established in 2015 on the Islamic State front. In addition, Russia has provided Iraq with fighter jets and military helicopters. For its part, Iraq has allowed Russia to use its airspace for attacks in Syria.
Egypt and Pakistan signed significant weapons deals with Russia and last year, the three countries held joint military exercises. According to Russian sources, Egypt is expected to authorize Russian use of its naval and air bases, including a base on the Mediterranean Sea that was used to monitor U.S. naval ships during the Cold War. Russia also signed a large weapons deal with Libya, Egypt's neighbor to the west, despite the U.N. embargo in place since 2011. In another move indicative of the strengthening of ties, Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was the host of an impressive ceremony off the Libyan coast. Even Jordan signed a deal with Russia in 2015, set to take effect in 2017, to establish and operate two nuclear energy plants in Zarqa. Russia's standing has also improved in the Philippines. In October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced an alliance with Russia and a "separation" from the United States.
What does the near future hold? Moscow's aspirations could further increase in light of increasing revenue from its export of oil and gas. Since the beginning of January, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other oil exporting countries like Russia began to coordinate a reduction in exports. This led to a 15% increase in the price of oil, and there are those who predict prices will continue to skyrocket in the future. Likewise, Russia will benefit from an increase in both demand for and price of natural gas. This increase in revenue could make it easier for Russia to cope with the painful effects of economic sanctions, the result of its invasion of Ukraine. Incidentally, the coordination on the reduction of oil exports, the war on Islamic State and Russian efforts to reduce ethnic violence in Syria could bring it closer to Saudi Arabia, a country that has always been concerned by Russia's influence in the region.
Another cause for Russian optimism comes from the direction of Washington. U.S. President Donald Trump has on several occasions alluded to his willingness to improve relations between the countries and promote cooperation with Russia as a means of solving world problems. At the same time, Trump has announced a re-evaluation of trade deals with China and of the relationship with China's anticommunist rival, Taiwan.
In light of all this, Israel would be wise to strengthen economic and strategic ties with Russia, so as not to place all its eggs in one Western basket. This will prevent a recurrence of the relationship status that survived the Cold War, in which the USSR clearly supported the Arab states. Such a situation would lead to competition between the superpowers and a return to the "Cold War theater" in the region, from which neither the superpowers nor the regional players will benefit.
IPT, Feb. 7, 2017
Faced with an array of developing threats to their stability and survival, Sunni Arab states have gone on an unprecedented military spending spree, buying up some of the very best capabilities the West has to offer. This development holds the potential for danger should these states be overrun by radical Islamists. As long as the Sunni governments, guided by concerns over Iran, ISIS and other extremist actors, remain firmly in power, possessing high quality Western weapons in such large quantities will serve their goals of defending themselves.
But should the Sunni countries disintegrate into failed states, or undergo an Islamist revolution – an unfortunate yet distinct possibility in the 21st century, chaotic Middle East – Israel and the West could face an explosively dangerous development. An organized Islamist rise to power would see the military forces of such states come under the command of belligerent decision makers. Alternatively, a failed state scenario would mean that military bases in these countries could be looted, and deadly platforms taken over. Either way, the scenario of jihadists seizing game-changing military capabilities is real enough for Israel to acknowledge that it is planning ahead for it as a necessary precaution.
Outgoing Israel Air Force Commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel spoke explicitly of this danger on Jan. 24 at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. His air force must know how to act as a precise surgeon, Eshel said, able to conduct pinpoint strikes based on fine intelligence. But it also must be able to operate like a "big hammer" able to deal with large-scale threats. In the tumultuous Middle East, he said, it seems unreasonable to believe that the current situation will remain as it is. "In five, 10, or 15 years, states can fall," he warned.
Eshel was referring to pragmatic Sunni states that, like Israel, are deeply threatened by Iran's expanding radical Shi'ite axis, and by Salafi jihadist Sunni groups that are bent on destroying all countries that do not fit their vision of an extremist caliphate. "Even if we have shared regional interests [with these Sunni countries now], we do not know what will happen in the future. Western military sales to these countries have reached $200 billion. This is state of the art weaponry. It is not just about the quantity," Eshel said. It is the Air Force's responsibility to assume that "something will collapse."
Most of the Arab countries' spending spree has gone into their air forces and surface-to-air missiles. The Israel Air Force must ensure it can deal with these capabilities, he added, in the event of future jihadist revolutions. In the same week that Eshel spoke, the U.S. State Department announced the first weapons sales to Gulf states under the Trump administration, pending approval by Congress. The sales reportedly include $400 million worth of helicopter gunship parts and air-to-air missiles to Kuwait, and $525 million for intelligence balloons to Saudi Arabia. ISIS has already built and deployed its own armed drones, according to reports, and if its goal of seizing control of state assets were realized, it could try to use some of the means on the battlefield.
Gulf Arab countries continue to break records in their rush to purchase military hardware. As part of its bid to deter Iran and boost its ability to hit the Islamic Republic's capital, Tehran, Saudi Arabia modernized its missile arsenal in recent years, purchasing Chinese medium-range surface-to-surface missiles from China, in a deal reportedly facilitated by the CIA.
More recently, the Saudis, who are leading a coalition against Iran-backed Houthi Shi'ite rebels in Yemen, spent $179.1 billion on weapons in 2016, and intend to spend $190 billion in 2017. Saudi Arabia in recent years has replaced Russia as the third largest defense spender in the world. Salafi jihadists would like nothing more than to topple the Saudi royal court, which they see as a Western puppet, and take control of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Last September, the U.S. approved $7 billion worth of fighter jets (F-15s and F-18s) to Kuwait and Qatar, and more than $1 billion in F-16 sales to Bahrain.
Egypt, too, has joined the shopping rush, becoming the world's fourth largest defense importer in 2016, buying up arms from the U.S. and France, as well as submarines from Germany. Egypt, which is in a state of deep civil conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, is also fighting a stubborn ISIS jihadist insurgency in its Sinai province. ISIS' terror campaign has claimed many lives among Egyptian security forces, and threatens to spread to other areas of the country.
After the fall and disintegration of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, the idea that the Middle Eastern map will remain unaltered in the coming years is far from certain. Had Israel, according to international media reports, not bombed Syria's nuclear weapons production facility in Deir Al-Zor in 2007, the area, now filled with ISIS, could have seen nuclear weapons fall into the hands of genocidal jihadists.
Should Sunni states begin their own nuclear programs in response to Iran's own future nuclear efforts, the danger of atomic bombs falling into Islamist hands would increase. There is no alternative but to plan for such contingencies in the current unpredictable regional environment, where today's rational states could be replaced by sinister forces tomorrow.
Fathom, Spring, 2017
The 1967 War was a watershed in Middle Eastern history. Israelis call it the Six-Day War, which is symbolic of the euphoric sense of victory that Israeli Jews felt in the aftermath of the war. The Arabs don’t call it the Six-Day War; for them it’s the ‘June War’, or the ‘67 War’. It was the most humiliating of defeats for the Arabs in modern times, maybe of all time.
First of all, the war wasn’t just a defeat in the battlefield. The war was also a horrendous defeat for the idea of Arab nationalism or pan-Arabism or Nasserism – whatever you want to call it. It showed that it was an empty vessel. A whole generation of Arabs had hung on every word of Abdel Nasser. The Palestinians were great believers in Nasser as the man who would deliver Palestine. Almost overnight, it all came to naught. Nasser had, in theory, the formula for Arab modernisation and success: Arab unity, Arab socialism, and alliance with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. This was to be the panacea for Arab ills and for the modernisation of the Arab world. I think many Israelis don’t realise the extent to which the war of 1967 was an utter shock and humiliation for the Arabs and for the Egyptians in particular.
There was a void in the aftermath of 1967 which was filled by two simultaneous but contradictory developments. One was the reassertion of raison d’etat – state interest. Once pan-Arabism was seen as ‘pie in the sky’ it became every more legitimate to pursue state interest unabashedly: Egypt first, Jordan first, Palestine first. So Egypt made war with Israel again, and then peace with Israel, each time serving purely Egyptian territorial state interests. For the Arab states involved in the 1967 war with Israel, the defeat was the beginning of thinking seriously about withdrawing from the conflict with Israel. After the Yom Kippur War of 1973 we saw the gradual withdrawal of the Arab states from the conflict with Israel. Essentially, the Arab world post-67 has left the Palestinians to fend for themselves. The Palestinians spoke with ever greater emphasis after 1967 of what in Arabic is called ‘the independence of decision’. They said: ‘the Arabs have disappointed us, we Palestinians must fend for ourselves, we must be our own independent decision makers.’ By taking this position the Palestinians took ever more responsibility for their own fate. But that also paved the way for the Arab states to actually let them go, in the spirit of ‘You want to be more independent, be our guests’. The Arab states walked away from the conflict, leaving the Palestinians to fend for their own raison d’etat.
The second trend that filled the void after 1967 was Islamic politics. The Islamists could now say with a lot of credibility: ‘We told you so. All this secular Arab nationalism is not going to get us anywhere. Islam is the solution, not secular nationalism.’ Arab nationalism was never favoured by the Islamists for the very good reason that Arab nationalism was actually an aircraft carrier for secularisation. Arab nationalism, at least in theory, is a secular ideology, uniting people based on the language they speak, not their religion. Arabism is about Muslims and Christians being Arabs. Islamism has the opposite effect, reasserting the sectarian differences which Arabism actually papered over. Now you’re talking about Sunni and Shi’a, Muslims and non-Muslims. This reassertion of Islamism has eroded and in some cases even partly dissolved the Arab state: Iraq and Syria are two examples.
What impact did the Six-Day War have on the Arab-Israeli conflict? First, Israel appeared in the Arab mind – in the aftermath of 1967 even more than before – as a monument to Arab inadequacy, Arab failure. Second, we saw the return of the Palestinians to the front of the stage. It is no longer the ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’; it’s the ‘Palestinian-Israeli conflict’. After 1967 the Palestinians were very much in control of their destiny, a dramatic turn of events. Third, the Arab states fought their last war with Israel in 1973. There has been no inter-state war between Arab states and Israel for 44 years. Once Egypt made its peace with Israel, there was no longer an Arab war option. Arab states could not make war with Israel without Egypt…
[To Read the Full Article Click the Following Link—Ed.]
U.S., Middle East Allies Explore Arab Military Coalition: Maria Abi-Habib, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 15, 2017—The Trump administration is in talks with Arab allies about having them form a military alliance that would share intelligence with Israel to help counter their mutual foe, Iran, several Middle Eastern officials said.
Trump, China, and the Middle East: Roie Yellinek, BESA, Feb. 7, 2017—Ever since Donald Trump won the US presidential race, the issue of US-China relations has been high on the agenda of both parties. The subject preoccupies the president more than Islamic terror, Vladimir Putin, and other more pressing issues facing the world. This should not be surprising. Throughout the campaign, Trump pointed his finger time and again at China. His attacks often occurred during speeches in declining, heavy-industrial cities in the "Rust Belt" states, where he subsequently achieved unexpected victories.
China and the Middle East – a Rapidly Changing Picture: Tim Collard, China.org, Feb. 8, 2017—China has for many years now preferred to refrain from involvement in the quagmire which is the Middle East. Until now the region has been considered too distant, and not sufficiently economically rewarding (apart from, of course, the need to ensure oil supplies) to justify closer engagement. What policy there has been has been entirely pragmatic, building on the establishment of sound economic and technological partnerships with Israel without disrupting relations with the diplomatically powerful Arab world.
How the World Turned Against Israel: an Interview with Joshua Muravchik: Fathom, Autumn, 2014—Israel was once the plucky underdog supported by Western public opinion, Left and Right. Today, it is the object of a global campaign to demonise the state and question its very right to exist. A new book by Joshua Muravchik, Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel (Encounter Books, 2014), seeks to explain this fall.