Trump Policy Recognizes That ‘Israel Is Not the Cause of the Region’s Problems’

By Patrick Goodenough | December 19, 2017 | 4:24 AM EST

President Trump speaks at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Monday, December 18, 2017. (Screen grab: White House)

( – President Trump in his National Security Strategy released Monday laid out two very different foreign policy positions from those of his predecessor – a priority on countering Iran’s behavior, and a challenge to the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the primary cause of instability in the Middle East.

The stances are in contrast to President Obama’s prioritizing of the nuclear program in his dealings with Iran, and his administration’s view that the Palestinian issue was central to problems in the region.

Trump’s NSS identifies Iran, along with North Korea, as one of three main sets of foreign security challenges facing the United States, the other two being jihadist terrorism and the “revisionist powers of China and Russia.”

“Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, has taken advantage of instability to expand its influence through partners and proxies, weapon proliferation, and funding,” it says, going on to highlight ballistic missile development, cyberattacks and “harm to civilian populations” in regional violence.

“Iran supports terrorist groups and openly calls for our destruction,” the document says.

The NSS underlines steps the U.S. is taking to counter Iran’s “malign” activities and influence, including working with regional partners and NATO allies, deploying missile defense systems – which it says “will include the ability to defeat missile threats prior to launch,” implying preemptive strikes – and denying the regime “all paths to a nuclear weapon.”

It also takes a swipe at the Obama administration’s decision to set aside other Iranian activities as it pursued the nuclear agreement, saying the U.S. is now “confronting the danger posed by the dictatorship in Iran, which those determined to pursue a flawed nuclear deal had neglected.”

Trump repeated that criticism in his speech Monday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, introducing the NSS.

Enumerating what he called “the failures of the past,” the president said his predecessors had “made a disastrous, weak, and incomprehensibly bad deal with Iran.”

‘Centrality’ of Israeli-Palestinian dispute challenged

Trump’s NSS also counters the view that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is central to the problems of the Middle East.

“For generations the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been understood as the prime irritant preventing peace and prosperity in the region,” it says. “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.”

“States have increasingly found common interests with Israel in confronting common threats,” it adds, without elaborating but likely referring to Egypt’s challenges with ISIS-affiliated jihadists in the Sinai, and the seething hostility between Iran and some Arab Gulf states.

The reference to Israel not being seen as “the cause of the region’s problems” pushes back on what has been called “the theory of Palestinian centrality” – the belief that resolving the Palestinians’ grievances will dramatically boost stability in the region.

It’s a view long promoted by some Western policymakers and also championed by Arab governments, often in a bid to divert attention from repression and corruption at home.

Even before he entered the White House, Obama described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “constant wound” that “does infect all of our foreign policy.”

Its lack of a resolution, he said in a 2008 interview with The Atlantic, “provides an excuse” for anti-American terrorists.

In response, the Jewish Institute for National Security Policy countered that jihadists battle against the West “for reasons that are unlikely to change either with our new president or with the creation of a small, corrupt state wedged between Jordan and Israel.”

Buoyed by such sentiments expressed by the new president, Islamic leaders in the run-up to Obama’s promised address “to the Muslim world” urged him to use the speech to tackle the Palestinian issue as a “root cause” of terrorism.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in an open letter to the incoming president, attributed terrorism to “deprivation, poverty, despair and, most importantly, political injustice.”

“The decades-long suffering of the Palestinian people provides only the most recent and potent illustration of the link between oppression, injustice, and violence,” added the OIC, calling for “an urgent and just remedy.”

Even as Arab societies exploded in so-called “Arab spring” protests in 2011, the Obama administration continued to stress the urgency of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement – despite the fact the issue played little if any part in driving the protests in Arab streets.

“With the winds of change blowing through the Arab world, it’s more urgent than ever than we try to seize the opportunity to create a peaceful solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Obama said in early April. In previous months popular protests had erupted in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Jordan.

The State Department echoed that view. Asked if the Arab upheavals indicated that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was now “on the backburner” or whether it remained “central to Mideast stability,” spokesman Mark Toner replied, “It’s always central to Mideast stability.”

Secretary of State John Kerry in mid-2013 met with Arab government ministers in Jordan, and was told that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was the “core” reason for regional instability – even as Syria’s deadly civil war raged, Egypt had just weathered a military takeover after months of violent protests, and more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in the course of one month by Sunni jihadists.

Kerry did not challenge the assertion, telling reporters afterwards that many ministers had told him “that the core issue of instability in this region and in many other parts of the world is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

“The only way to resolve that,” he continued, “is through direct negotiations …”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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