Politics & Policy

Trump Isn’t Repeating Obama’s Middle East Mistakes

President Trump departs the White House, February 3, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
Contrary to mainstream-media reports, the new president is already taking a tougher stance on Iran and a friendlier stance toward Israel than his predecessor.

By the end of his second week in office, President Donald Trump has discovered it is actually possible for him to do something that garners applause from the mainstream media. Though Democrats seem more interested in futile gestures of “resistance” to his government than in normal opposition, all Trump had to do to gain a modicum of respect from the New York Times and other denizens of the liberal echo chamber was to preserve rather than reject the policies of his predecessor. Or at least that was how the Times and the talking heads on CNN and MSNBC perceived the new administration’s statements about Israel, Iran, and Russia this week. In reality, the claim that, as the front-page headline in Friday’s Times put it, “Trump Reverts to Pillars of Obama Foreign Policy,” is actually dead wrong when applied to the Middle East.

The Times story treated administration statements about Israeli settlements, sanctions against Iran, and Russian aggression against Ukraine as proof that Trump was backing away from efforts to reverse President Obama’s policies. The jury is still out on what direction the administration will take toward Russia, though this week’s statements from U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley signaled the administration’s continued opposition to Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, which should give hope to those who believe the president’s crush on Vladimir Putin needs to be nipped in the bud.

With respect to the Middle East, however, the effort to interpret administration statements as an embrace of Obama’s policies — namely his unprecedented pressure on Israel and his desire for détente with Iran — are simply false. The argument that Trump is embracing Obama’s approach centers on one statement from White House press secretary Sean Spicer:

While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful.

That can be reasonably interpreted as opposing the creation of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But its first clause is a complete and total rejection of the repeated assertions of both Obama and former secretary of state John Kerry that settlements are the primary obstacle in the way of a peace deal.

Spicer’s words are actually a declaration that Trump is embracing the terms of President George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to the Israeli government, in which Bush said that changes on the ground since 1967 would have to be taken into account in any peace agreement. In practice, Bush made it clear that meant Israel would keep parts of Eastern Jerusalem as well as the major settlement blocs erected near the 1967 lines, where more than 80 percent of West Bank settlers live. Just as important, he signaled that new construction in those areas would not be considered an issue by the United States. Bush’s position was explicitly rejected by Obama, who consistently blamed Israel for the failure of his efforts to broker peace no matter what the Palestinians did, and advanced the belief that 40-year-old Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem and the blocs were just as “illegal” as the most remote hilltop settlement in the middle of the West Bank.

As to the question of “new settlements,” according to the Obama administration, Israel never stopped building them in vast numbers. Indeed, in December Obama’s deputy National Security Council adviser actually defended the administration’s decision to allow a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel to pass by claiming that the Israelis had been constructing “tens of thousands” of new settlements. The claim was, of course, rubbish.

In fact, there are only approximately 230 settlements in the West Bank including those unauthorized by Israeli law. When Israel’s critics speak of its government’s building “new settlements,” they are referring to the erection of new houses or apartments in existing communities. So the announcement this week that Israel is building several-hundred new homes in Jerusalem and West Bank settlements does not actually fall under Spicer’s definition of construction that “may not be helpful” to the efforts toward a peace deal.

The new administration appears to understand, as Obama never did, that the biggest obstacle to peace is the Palestinians.

The timing is interesting, because this week Israel did announce legal authorization for what is, contrary to what the mainstream media might tell you, the first “new settlement” to go up in more than 20 years. But even that decision isn’t as bad as it sounds: The settlement was approved to house Israelis who have just been evicted from Amona, a controversial village built on land that wasn’t legally purchased and was ordered demolished by Israeli courts.

At worst, then, Spicer’s message may be seen as a mild slap on the wrist for the replacement of Amona. The notion that it is an embrace of Obama’s obsessive criticism of Israeli settlement policy has no basis in fact. The new administration appears to understand, as Obama never did, that the biggest obstacle to peace is the Palestinians, who have repeatedly rejected Israel’s offers of a two-state solution that would involve dismantling settlements. Had they ever said “yes” to Israel’s offers, those settlements beyond Jerusalem and the blocs would have been vacated years ago.

On Iran, those arguing that Trump has come around to Obama’s point of view are on even shakier ground. According to the Times, Trump’s decision to impose new sanctions on Iran for its violations of U.N. resolutions forbidding them to test ballistic missiles is proof that he is reverting to one of the “pillars” of Obama’s strategy. Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, however, was contingent on America’s agreeing to dismantle international sanctions. And while Trump has not torn up the deal — a move that would involve its other signatories — he has pledged to try to enforce it more strictly than Obama, and he appears determined to hold the Iranians accountable for non-nuclear misbehavior such as their support for international terrorism.

While Trump has not yet moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as he promised during the campaign, he has already made it clear that Obama’s quest for more “daylight” between the two allies is over. Only someone who expects Trump to take positions to the right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements and the two-state solution — Netanyahu has restrained the growth of the former and publicly backs the latter — could characterize the new administration’s policies as being reminiscent of Obama’s.

Predicting what Donald Trump will ultimately do in the Middle East or anywhere else is a fool’s errand. But if there is any one overarching theme to his foreign policy it is a rejection of his predecessor’s approach. Trump has already shown an understanding that Obama’s misguided Middle East preoccupations weakened the U.S. position and made the region a more dangerous place. He may make mistakes of his own in the next four years, but it is highly unlikely that he will repeat those of his predecessor.

— Jonathan S. Tobin is a contributor to National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.

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