Trump strategy paper has good and less good news for Israel, but may not matter
Analysis'It's not designed to deal with the granular'

Trump strategy paper has good and less good news for Israel, but may not matter

Administration’s new document says Israel ‘is not the cause’ of Mideast turmoil, but it lacks the Obama-era pledge to maintain Israel’s military edge

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building December 18, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)
US President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building December 18, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy released Monday — which declares that Israel is not the cause of the Middle East’s problems — will have very little practical impact, according to veteran US diplomats and experts on the region.

Such a document, which is released periodically by the White House because of a 1986 law, “bears little resemblance to reality usually,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator in several administrations. “It’s not designed to deal with the granular.”

Trump’s offering generated headlines in Israel for one sentence in a 68-page document seeking to debunk what is often referred to as the “linkage theory” — the argument that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of the broader region’s instability.

“For generations the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region,” the missive said. “Today, the threats from jihadist terrorist organizations and the threat from Iran are creating the realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems.”

US President Donald Trump speaks on his national security strategy at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, on December 18, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)

It also said that Israel has found common interest with some of its Arab neighbors because of common threats — presumably referring to Iran — and that the Trump White House remains committed to brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

While such a statement has not been included in similar past documents, a former diplomat with the Israeli-Palestinian file during the Obama administration said it does not mark a real policy shift.

“Ever since 9/11 and the Arab Spring, the two major seismic earthquakes of the Middle East, the public has come to realize that there are so many conflicts in the region and most of them don’t have anything to do with Israel,” David Makovsky, now with the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, told The Times of Israel. “I don’t think it’s a turning point at all.”

David Makovsky (screen caputre: YouTube)

“It used to be that this would be the overarching conflict,” he went on. “You would have [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak and King Hussein come to the United States and say that if you unlock this conflict you solve the Middle East. There was a time when Americans believed that, but they just don’t believe it anymore.”

While Makovsky’s old boss, former US president Barack Obama, articulated to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world was partly designed to make that point (“My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel”), he never quite elevated that stance to the level of a policy position.

In playing down the significance of the new US posture regarding the roots of Middle East turmoil, Miller noted that the document’s passage on Israel and the Palestinians was not included in Trump’s own remarks on Monday outlining his doctrine.

Aaron David Miller (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aaron David Miller (Courtesy)

“Remember where it appears,” Miller told The Times of Israel. “It wasn’t important enough to appear in the actual text of the president’s speech. It occurs in the last section of the National Security Strategy with respect to the region.”

Furthermore, Miller pointed out a noteworthy departure — to Israel’s apparent detriment — in the new security strategy paper, when compared to the last National Security Strategy released by the Obama administration in 2015.

In a section devoted to the Middle East and the US government’s goal of seeking “stability and peace,” that 2015 document vows to invest “in the ability of Israel, Jordan, and our Gulf partners to deter aggression while maintaining our unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, including its Qualitative Military Edge.”

Trump’s National Security Strategy does not include similar language — what Miller called “the key bromide that has been a part of American policy for years.”

“You’ve gotta wonder who is thinking this through,” Miller said. “You basically drop one pro-Israel statement and insert another. It shows how little these documents actually mean.”

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