‘Erratic’ or ‘Strategic Clarity’: What to make of Trump’s Middle East legacy?

Experts from Israel and abroad weigh in on how the unconventional tenure of the 45th president changed the region — for good and for bad

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-US president Donald Trump (right) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Trump's departure to Rome at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, on May 23, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO via Flash90)
Then-US president Donald Trump (right) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Trump's departure to Rome at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, on May 23, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO via Flash90)

Donald Trump broke with bipartisan convention in his Middle East policy.

Some say he overturned stagnant conventional wisdom that rewarded foes while punishing allies.

Others argue that the former president damaged American interests and abandoned its long-standing commitments in the region.

The Times of Israel asked experts in Israel and abroad for their take on Trump’s lasting impact on the Middle East.

Danielle Pletka (Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute)

Danielle Pletka (photo credit: AEI, courtesy)

The Trump presidency represented a watershed for the Middle East, a completely unexpected transformation. Pre-Trump, the region remained largely static, with accepted wisdom guiding both Democratic and Republic presidents to a series of similar policies. In retrospect, that willingness to accept the conventional, academic platitudes about how to best manage Middle East policy was foolish. Doing the same thing time and again and expecting different results may not be the definition of insanity in policy, but it is surely the definition of incompetence and laziness. Most observers can repeat the mantras of those failed policies: The road to peace in the Middle East runs through Ramallah (Jerusalem); Sunnis and Shiites (and Jews) can never work together; the Arab world will never accept a Jewish state; Iran and Saudi Arabia must “share” the region and more.

Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was greeted with contempt by the peace processors and policy experts of Washington and the Middle East, and we were wrong. It took someone who was uninterested in the failed policies of the past to envision a new region. Four peace agreements with Israel later, the Middle East has realigned dramatically. Some credit belongs to the maligned Obama administration’s pro-Iran tilt; suddenly the Arab world awoke to realize that it could not count on Washington. But much credit goes to Team Trump.

Donald Trump’s legacy at home is in tatters, and deservedly so. But in the Middle East, he should rightly be remembered as a transformational peacemaker.

Some will suggest the US bribed its way to those peace agreements, misremembering that the US has bribed its way to every peace agreement over the last half-century. Some will argue that war will become inevitable because Iran no longer has a glide path to denuclearization. But the great lie of the Iran Deal was that it would somehow change Iran; that did not, and would not ever have happened. Donald Trump’s legacy at home is in tatters, and deservedly so. But in the Middle East, he should rightly be remembered as a transformational peacemaker.

Daniel Byman (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy)

Daniel Byman (photo credit: Georgetown University, courtesy)

“Trump’s presidency was erratic and indicated a skepticism toward, and even hostility of, much of the world, including much of the Middle East as well as a lack of concern for many traditional US regional interests. President Trump, with many Americans behind him, openly derided longstanding US commitments, such as the security of Saudi Arabia when Iran attacked it with missiles. His Israel policy was focused on US domestic audiences, not on Israel’s role in the region. Many regional leaders appreciated Trump’s hostility to Iran, and many Israelis welcomed his uncritical support. In the future, however, all states will have to reckon with the possibility that the United States is less engaged in the Middle East and may elect leaders whose policies vary widely.”

Efraim Inbar (President, Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security)

Efraim Inbar (JISS, courtesy)

Trump and Kushner contributed to strategic clarity on several issues:

Iran is the main barrier to stability in the Middle East and states have to put aside many non-relevant issues to unite against the Ayatollahs. The faulty JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] was dropped and diplomacy was used to bring the Gulf states, Sudan and Morocco closer to Israel.

The Trump administration also proved that the Palestinian issue is NOT the central conflict and a real barrier to better relations with Israel.

The Trump administration also proved, by moving the embassy to Jerusalem, that a large part of the Arab world can live with Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The Trump administration continued signaling that the US is diminishing its commitment to be the policeman of the Middle East, allowing greater freedom of action to the regional actors and increasing their need for “self-help” postures.

Fleur Hasson-Nahoum (Deputy Mayor, Jerusalem, and Co-Founder, Israel-UAE Business Council)

Fleur Hasson-Nahoum (photo credit: GIlabraand, Wikimedia Commons – CC)

Sometimes when things are stuck you need someone completely unconventional to rattle the cage. Trump was certainly an unconventional leader. Not stuck in the paradigms of decades of accepted American policy in the Middle East. Not burdened by the Messiah complex that his predecessor had. He saw things simply: you strengthen your allies to weaken your enemies. That’s exactly what he did: Israel did not need to solve the Palestinian problem to bring about normalization in the region. Maybe even the opposite was true. Recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Golan Heights as under our sovereignty was recognizing a reality that will never change, and economic development as the first step to a long lasting peace is simply improving people’s lives. He simplified, didn’t over-complicate, and as a result changed the course of history in the region for the better.

Daniel Serwer (Professor, School of Advanced International Studies
Johns Hopkins University): 

Trump leaned heavily in the direction of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates: he did not complain about their human rights records, triggered their renewed conflict with Qatar, continued the Obama administration policy of supporting the war in Yemen, helped when they needed it to raise oil prices, and protected the Saudi Crown Prince from accusations of murder.

Daniel Serwer (photo credit: MEI, courtesy)

Trump also leaned heavily in the direction of Greater Israel advocates, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, by not complaining about settlements in the West Bank, moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and putting forward a so-called peace proposal that was inimical to Palestinian political interests. Both the Gulf Arab states and Israel advocated withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and relished the re-imposition of sanctions and “maximum pressure.” Netanyahu might have also liked military action against Iran, but the Gulf Arab states were hesitant about that. In the end, the so-called Abraham accords (especially with UAE and Bahrain) served the interests of the Gulf Arabs and Israel while damaging prospects for the Palestinians.

The normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain is perhaps the only permanent change in the Middle East. Biden will seek to reverse withdrawal from the JCPOA, reduce protection for Mohammed bin Salman and other autocrats, end support for the war in Yemen, and revive the two-state solution (without withdrawing the US embassy from Jerusalem).

Ghaith al-Omari (Senior Fellow, Washington Institute) 

When it comes to Arab-Israeli relations, the Trump Administration left a mixed legacy. The Abraham Accords were a historic breakthrough, changing the decades-old regional landscape. These accords not only benefit the countries directly involved, but impact the whole regional security architecture in ways that will help advance regional security and US interests. The recent shift of Israel from European Command to Central Command is an example of how these developments can help create a better integrated region.

Ghaith al-Omari (photo credit: Washington Institute, courtesy)

On the negative side, the Trump Administration’s policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict severely undermined the prospects of a two-state solution. The Trump peace plan itself presented a vision that was globally and regionally rejected as incompatible with a viable solution. Other policies, such as changing the designation of settlements or cutting all aid to Palestinians, further added to the erosion of the prospects of such a solution. These policies, along with developments within Israel and the Palestinians, are creating a potential crisis that is generating concern not only among the two sides but also other stakeholders like Jordan.

The challenge facing the Biden administration is to expand and build upon the positive developments while reversing the impact of the negative ones.

Jonathan Schanzer (Senior Vice President for Research, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies)

Trump took full advantage of the changes that transpired during the Obama years. Israel and the Gulf states found themselves on the same page regarding the Arab Spring and the Iran nuclear deal, and increasingly engaged in quiet cooperation. Trump, or perhaps more precisely Jared Kushner, realized that there was an opportunity to formalize those relationships, and then to expand upon them, given the overall disinterest in keeping alive the destructive and unproductive Arab League boycott of Israel.

Jonathan Schanzer (photo credit: FDD, courtesy)

In other words, with the Abraham Accords, Trump did not exactly change the Middle East as much as he brought new realities out of the shadows. Still, he deserves credit.

Where Trump changed the Middle East most was with Iran. He literally upended the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in one stroke. The assassination of Qassem Soleimani was probably the most significant act of his presidency. The green light that he gave Israel to target Iranian assets in Syria and beyond was also immensely important. Iran appeared feckless and unable to respond in most cases. One gets a sense that Iran is still on its back foot.

“Trump did not exactly change the Middle East as much as he brought new realities out of the shadows.

We now watch to see whether the Biden administration takes advantage of the leverage that Trump has gifted him.

Finally, Trump changed Israel. Trump moved the embassy to Jerusalem, recognized sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and rolled out a peace plan. The embassy will not move back. The Golan Heights decision will almost certainly not be overturned. And the peace plan will forever be used as leverage by Israeli negotiators to counter peace proposals that attempt to grant the Palestinians more leverage than the Israelis wish to yield. These are lasting changes.

On the negative side of the ledger, one can argue that Trump has set the stage for timeline-based withdrawals from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will continue down this path. But it certainly appears that Trump has prepared the Middle East for a future without significant American involvement. This does not have to be a permanent change. But it could be one without careful American leadership.

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