Skip to main content

Michael Bell

Michael Bell is a former Canadian ambassador who spent 16 years in the Middle East. He is co-director of the Jerusalem Old City Initiative, whose findings are now being published by Routledge in three volumes.

Donald Trump's visit to the Middle East was a tremendous success for a U.S. President beset by a tsunami of controversy back home. His reception in Riyadh was unprecedented, full of pomp and circumstance. Just the fanfare the narcissistic President loves, reinforced by a summit of (Sunni) Muslim leaders convened to hear him speak, a seeming act of fealty.

His address in Riyadh focused on Iranian "evil" and that country's support for terror groups: Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah – all a threat to the established order. This plays well in the Sunni world where the Gulf states, Jordan and Egypt see themselves as under threat from Shia Iran. Their approbation will reinforce Mr. Trump's determination to hobble Tehran, ironically at a time the moderate reformer Hassan Rouhani has just won a new mandate against well-entrenched hardliners – the perpetrators of regionwide sectarian violence.

This was accompanied by a sweet arms deal with Saudi Arabia, estimated at $110-billion (U.S.), with the intention to grow to as much as $350-billion. The Saudis also reportedly pledged $40-billion toward investment in the U.S., bolstering the Trump mantra: "jobs, jobs, jobs."

Lawrence Martin: The 'deep state' is winning against Trump

If Riyadh wants to be seen as the vanguard of Western interests in the region, it is well on its way. The attention devoted to the Saudis strikes a blow at Russian ambition, and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be frustrated. The U.S. President displayed hard-core realism, stressing the pursuit of "interests" at the expense of "values." He said the United States had no desire to interfere in the domestic affairs of his hosts, which – after eight years of Barack Obama "hounding" them on human rights – is mightily welcome.

And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ought to be well satisfied with Mr. Trump's bellicose words about Iran, given what he sees as that country's determination to possess nuclear weapons, thereby creating an existential threat to the Jewish state. Conversely, Mr. Netanyahu is concerned that Mr. Trump is putting the brakes on the West Bank settlement exercise, a sharp blow to those government members committed to a Greater Israel. The Prime Minister is dependent on the ultraright to maintain his Knesset majority.

The Gulf states had offered a tempting package to Mr. Trump in return for Israel's cessation of building activity outside the formally established settlement blocs: direct telecommunications, the opening of Gulf airspace for Israeli commercial flights, visas for Israeli business travellers and athletes. This is a significant Arab pivot: near-normal relations for a settlement freeze.

Mr. Netanyahu moved just before the visit to placate his American visitor, with the security cabinet approving the PM's plan for a series of economic measures: easing the movement of Palestinian labourers working in Israel and issuing building permits for about 1,000 Palestinian homes in Area C of the West Bank, turf over which Israel exercises full military and civil control. That said, Mr. Netanyahu is hostage to the settlers and they invariably take precedence in his calculations. He is in a very tight spot. The President's address to the Knesset was cancelled due to fears there would be wide-scale heckling.

Mr. Trump did visit the Western Wall, the first U.S. President to have done so, it being located in Arab East Jerusalem. No Israeli officials, however, were present. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the President's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, refused to be drawn into talk about whether the Western Wall was even in Jerusalem. When speaking, they used the term "Palestine" rather than Palestinian Authority, no slip of the tongue. Nor will the U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Despite this, there is upset in some mainstream Palestinian circles at what is seen as a pro-Israeli bias on Mr. Trump's part. His shortened visit to Bethlehem was cited. There is fear that Palestinian priorities will be treated as tertiary. President Mahmoud Abbas, however, knew he had to reach out, promising immediate negotiations without his earlier preconditions. He has agreed to look at the question of payments to the families of convicted terrorists, although, in his weakened domestic position, such payment will be difficult to forgo.

The question now is whether Mr. Trump has the persistence, patience and determination for a long, hard slog in order to bring any of his ideas to fruition. Given past performance, this may be a moot point.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct