Nobody knows better than Israelis, whose state has been battered relentlessly by violence since rebirth, about the blight of war and terrorism. Few of those in Israel watching US President Donald Trump in Riyadh on Sunday deliver a rhetorical assault on terrorism — and specifically “Islamist extremism” and “Islamist terror” — would argue with his single-minded focus.
How terribly, bitterly true, many Israelis would have reflected, too many of them with very personal anguish and loss, when Trump declared that “the true toll of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and so many others, must be counted not only in the number of dead. It must also be counted in generations of vanished dreams.”
Unsurprisingly, the new president’s landmark address to the Muslim world was radically dissimilar in mindset and tone to that of his immediate US presidential predecessor, in Cairo eight years ago. Belying his anti-Muslim presidential campaigning, it shared an aspect of Obama-esque outreach: “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” said Trump. But it showed a US president determined to sound hard-headed and results-driven. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it,” he continued. “This is a battle between Good and Evil.”
From a narrow Israeli perspective, what was most striking, needless to say, was the near-non-existent focus on Israel, the next stop on this presidential trip. Trump didn’t even mention Israel when he listed the countries victimized by terrorism.
Obama, who was criticized (including by this writer) for talking in his Cairo address of Israel and its legitimacy in the context of Holocaust, devoted lengthy passages of his address to the imperative for the Arab world to come to terms with Israel.
Trump dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in spectacularly succinct fashion, saying only that he would be traveling next to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, would meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and that if Judaism, Christianity and Islam “can join together in cooperation, then peace in this world is possible – including peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” His only other mention of Israel came when he condemned the terror-sponsoring government of Iran for “vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this room.”
Of course, while Obama later headed home without stopping here, Trump will be flying into Ben-Gurion Airport in a few hours’ time.
Immediately following Trump, Jordan’s King Abdullah restored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its familiar place at the heart of Arab world rhetoric. Abdullah called for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on a two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative, and asserted — in continued defiance of much that has unfolded in the Arab world, notably since the eruption of the misnamed Arab Spring — that our conflict “is the core issue for our region,” and that “no injustice has spread more bitter fruit than the absence of a Palestinian state.”
Focused thoroughly on the challenge of Islamist terror, Trump offered little by way of recipes for its defeat — instead highlighting presidential expectation, determination, and friendship for those who partner the United States in the battle. Just drive out the terrorists, he repeated. “DRIVE THEM OUT.”
If his speech yields a genuine strategic shift, if it marks the start of a US-led, international prioritizing of the struggle against terror — with a concerted effort not only to tackle terrorists militarily, but to marginalize radical political and spiritual leaders, toxic educational hierarchies and social media indoctrination and incitement — then it will have proved a landmark address indeed.
If not, we will all be the losers.
“With God’s help, this summit will mark the beginning of the end for those who practice terror and spread its vile creed,” said Trump.
To which we in Israel — however wary about his vast arms deal with the Saudis, however troubled by his disinclination to challenge the Arab world on its human rights record and absence of democracy, and however dismayed by our near-absence from his Riyadh address — can only say a heartfelt Amen.