West Asia

Donald Trump’s transactional politics on behalf of Israel

Print edition : January 15, 2021

President Donald Trump flanked by (from left) Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel; Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Bahrain’s Minister for Foreign Affairs; and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, United Arab Emirates’ Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation; at the White House on September 15, 2020, the day the two Arab countries signed agreements normalising relations with Israel. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi after a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on November 19, 2020. Photo: Patrick Semansky/REUTERS

It seems like there is almost nothing President Trump will not do, even in his last days in office, to please the Israeli leadership and the evangelical Christian and Zionist lobby in the U.S. that helped him win in 2016.

As United States President Donald Trump enters the final months of his presidency, he is working overtime to help Israel achieve its political, diplomatic and military goals. All U.S. Presidents have been good benefactors of the Jewish state, but no other President so far has handed so much on a platter to Israel. Trump has ridden roughshod over international law and United Nations Security Council resolutions to please the evangelical Christian and Zionist lobby that helped him win the presidency four years ago. Trump even refused to pay lip service to the two-state solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. All previous administrations, both Democrat and Republican, had backed the two-state solution since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation signed the Oslo Peace Accords under U.S. tutelage in 1993.

Shifting of embassy

Almost all of Israel’s outstanding demands have been fulfilled at the expense of Palestinians. Trump ordered the shifting of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2017. This was a long-standing demand of the Israeli government and the evangelical Christian movement in the U.S. The Christian Zionists repaid the favour by voting solidly for Trump this time too. The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) criticised Trump’s move as East Jerusalem is the designated capital of the state of Palestine. The P.A. suspended diplomatic relations with Washington in protest.

Trump retaliated by ordering the suspension of humanitarian aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the beleaguered Palestinians and the closing down of the Palestinian embassy in Washington. Even aid for critically ill Palestinians suffering from diseases such as cancer was suspended. However, military aid to the P.A.’s security services, which work in close coordination with U.S. and Israeli security services, continues uninterrupted. The U.S. trained the P.A.’s security force.

‘Deal of the century’

In January 2020, Trump finally unveiled his so-called “deal of the century”, which he bombastically claimed would end the Israel-Arab conflict. The international community was not surprised that the terms offered in the deal were only beneficial to one side, Israel. The deal sought to legitimise the widespread Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which would have made a mockery of the proposed Palestinian state. Trump’s so-called “vision of peace” handed sovereignty of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israel. Undivided Jerusalem was described as the capital of Israel. The Trump administration wanted the Palestinians to give up their sacrosanct “right of return” for the millions of refugees, who were forced out of their homeland when the state of Israel was violently created, and their descendants. The Trump plan envisaged the Israeli army having control over security along the border between the West Bank and Israel. It was no surprise that Palestinians and most of the international community summarily dismissed Trump’s “deal of the century”.

Also read: Palestine: End of a hate plan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump for being the first foreign leader to recognise the sovereignty of Israel over the West Bank and went on to announce that Israel was on the verge of formally annexing 30 per cent of the West Bank. “Trump is creating not only a new Israel, but a new world. A world without international law, without honouring international resolutions, without even the appearance of justice,” the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote in his Haaretz newspaper column.

Golan Heights

Trump’s contempt for international law was again exemplified when, in an abrupt reversal of decades of U.S. policy, he recognised the annexed Golan Heights as being part of Israel. The Golan Heights were captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Before the war, more than 200,000 Syrians lived in the area. It was with U.S. help that Israel managed to retain the Golan Heights when Syria tried to regain the territory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. U.N. Security Council resolution 242, which was passed in 1967 after Israel’s takeover of Golan, upholds the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”. This was a basic principle of the post-Second World War international system. If Trump had been re-elected, he would have given Israel the go-ahead to formally annex the West Bank too.

The six-party nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was also broken to a large extent to please the domestic Zionist lobby and Israel. It was an international agreement that the U.S. was party to. The U.S. President’s sanctioning of the assassination of the Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani (“Suicidal assassination of Qassem Soleimani”, Frontline, January 31, 2020) while Soleimani was on an official visit to Iraq is yet another illustration of the Trump administration’s penchant for bending over backwards to fulfil even the most extreme demands of the Zionist state. Soleimani had been on top of the Israeli hit list for a long time. The Israeli government was well aware that its direct involvement in his assassination could have disastrous consequences. The Iranians reacted militarily after the assassination by targeting a U.S. military base with a missile barrage.

Assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh

It is unlikely that the Israeli secret services would have assassinated the top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh (“Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh’s killing points to Israel’s murderous game plan”, Frontline, January 1, 2021) without getting the green signal from the White House. Israel had hoped to provoke Iran into reacting militarily and spark another Gulf war. One of Netanyahu’s fondest hopes was that Trump would wage war against Iran on Israel’s behalf. The President was on the precipice of doing so after the assassination of Soleimani but was constrained by his pledge to his political base to bring a closure to the never-ending wars the U.S. is waging in West Asia and other parts of the world.

Although Trump’s “deal of the century” had no takers, he finally managed to break Arab unity on the Palestine issue to some extent by getting four Arab states to agree to the normalisation of relations with Israel. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the first to break ranks followed by Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. In return for the UAE’s formal recognition of Israel, the Trump administration will be selling the country the top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and electronic warfare planes. In a joint statement, Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, said that Israel no longer objected to the sale as the U.S. “is upgrading Israel’s military capabilities and maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge”.

Also read: Tension over the ‘peace deal’ between Israel and the UAE

Saudi Arabia was also expected to announce normalisation of relations with Israel but has held back owing to the fear of a domestic public backlash. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the kingdom, was said to be in favour of it but was reportedly overruled by his father, King Salman. The King apparently is in favour of sticking to the Arab League’s position that diplomatic relations should be established only after the creation of a Palestinian state. But the Saudis have opened their airspace to Israeli air traffic. The Israeli Prime Minister was in Saudi Arabia in late November for a “secret” meeting with MBS and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It may not have been a coincidence that Fakhrizadeh’s assassination took place soon after the meeting.

Bahrain would not have established diplomatic relations with Israel without the express approval of Saudi Arabia. In 2011, the Saudis and the Emiratis sent troops to Bahrain to prop up the monarchy when it was facing popular street protests, and they continue to be present there. The Saudis and the Emiratis also played a role in helping the Trump administration advance Israel’s goals in the region and undermine the Palestinian cause by lobbying with the governments of Sudan and Morocco.

It was the Sudanese military leadership, which is close to the Saudis, that was keen on signing the deal Trump proposed. Civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other civilian leaders, according to reports, initially had serious reservations about the plan to normalise relations with Israel. The U.S. had branded Sudan a “terrorist state” since the twin attacks on its embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. Sudan has always denied its involvement, but because Osama bin Laden was allowed to stay in the country for a few years in the early 1990s, the U.S. deemed it guilty and imposed tough sanctions, which adversely impacted Sudan’s economy. The Trump administration indicated to the government in Khartoum that it would be removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of states “sponsoring terrorism” if it broke with the Arab consensus and recognised Israel. The government in Khartoum finally relented, and President Trump announced in October that Sudan and Israel had agreed to open diplomatic and economic ties. “Huge win for the United States and for peace in the world,” Trump tweeted on the occasion. Senior Sudanese officials admitted that their government was under immense pressure from the Trump administration to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state at a time when the country was in the throes of an economic meltdown and its health system was in tatters because of the pandemic.

‘Another stab in the back’

While welcoming Sudan’s removal from the “terror list”, Hamdok has so far not said anything about establishing “diplomatic relations” with Israel. It seems that the interim government prefers to leave the decision to the civilian government that will be formed after Sudan goes to the polls in 2022. Removal from Washington’s “terror list” will enable the government in Khartoum to access international debt relief and financial aid. The Trump administration has promised hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and aid for the step it has taken. Netanyahu hailed the Sudanese decision as a “dramatic breakthrough”. P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas strongly criticised Sudan’s move, with Palestinian officials describing it as yet “another stab in the back”.

In the second week of December, Morocco became the fourth Arab country to agree to recognise Israel in exchange for the U.S. openly siding with Morocco on the Western Sahara issue (see story) and for the supply of sophisticated military weaponry. Trump further sweetened the deal by promising more than $3 billion in U.S. investments in Morocco’s tourism and banking sectors and a renewable energy company the Moroccan King owns. With this move, Morocco has given up all pretensions of solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Anyway, Morocco has had long-standing relations with Israel. Liaison offices were opened in the capitals of the two countries in 1994 following the Oslo Peace Accords. Morocco closed the liaison offices following the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) in 2000, but security relations between the two countries continued. Israel has helped the Moroccans with their spyware. The Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, has had a presence in the Kingdom of Morocco for the last 60 years. Every Mossad chief since 1960 has visited the Moroccan capital, Rabat. Morocco had used the Mossad to carry out the assassination of the charismatic opposition leader, Mehdi Ben Barka, in France, where he was living in exile. The current Moroccan King has been trying for years to get Israel to convince the Trump administration to recognise Western Sahara as part of Morocco.

Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi said that the Trump administration “was scrambling to do anything it can to extract concessions and benefits for Israel”. She said that there was “something extremely immoral in the way they are exploiting countries’ needs and demands”. The Moroccan authorities have used strong-arm methods to put down attempts to stage protests. An opposition leader said that the attempt of the authorities to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations indicated that the decision to normalise relations with Israel “was imposed on the Moroccan people”.

It is not only the U.S. that is helping Israel in its efforts to break the international solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The Narendra Modi government has done its bit by giving Bhutan the green signal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Israel and Bhutan signed an agreement in the second week of December to establish full diplomatic relations. India closely supervises Bhutan’s foreign policy. The country has diplomatic relations with around 50 countries. Bhutan has so far not been able to establish full diplomatic relations with China though the two countries share a border.

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