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Obama’s Failures Created Trump’s New Middle East

President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump’s address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
In The New Yorker, an investigation of efforts by Israel and the Gulf state to outmaneuver Obama ignores why they succeeded.

The search for explanations and scapegoats for the rejection of President Obama’s worldview in the 2016 election continues. In The New Yorker’s latest contribution to this genre — “Donald Trump’s New World Order: How the President, Israel, and the Gulf States plan to fight Iran and leave the Palestinians and the Obama years behind” — the author, Adam Entous, doesn’t label as collusion the efforts by Israel and the Gulf states to undermine Obama-administration policies and influence the Trump campaign. But the underlying theme of the massive report is that those efforts are disreputable, if not as shady as forms of intervention practiced by the Russians.

There is little here that is new or shocking about the fact that the Israelis felt President Obama treated them unfairly as he pushed for a peace deal with the Palestinians. The same is true about the anger of the Israelis, the Saudis, and the United Arab Emirates about Obama’s efforts to bring about a rapprochement with Iran. In particular, the open antagonism between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration was much reported at the time, with the White House leaking juicy tidbits to pet journalists who were members of what deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes called their “echo chamber.”

Nor was it a secret that both the Israelis and their Gulf-state allies of convenience believed that relations with the United States would improve no matter who won the 2016 election. That they were trying to get a handle on a potential Trump administration, even if that was an outcome that few in the United States or elsewhere thought was likely, was also not kept quiet.

The frame of reference adopted by Entous is that of the Obama administration, whose alumni make up most of his sources. According to their retelling, President Obama was a good friend of Israel whose efforts for peace were frustrated by Netanyahu and his settlement policies. After eight years, they were fed up and orchestrated the passage of a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned Israeli settlement building, including apartments constructed in the Jewish neighborhoods built in Jerusalem after its unification in 1967.

As Entous reports, that led to Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer’s reaching out to President-elect Trump’s team. Dermer was especially fearful that a settlements resolution would be followed by one that laid down the borders for a Palestinian state that would be essentially granted independence without first having to make peace with Israel. While Trump and his aides were willing to help try to prevent the passage of the settlements resolution, they were characteristically too disorganized to do much pre-inauguration collusion with the Israelis, and Obama’s effort to punish Netanyahu on his way out the door succeeded.

Whether that was a wrongful act that impinged on the right of Obama to conduct foreign policy while he remained in power or was merely a legitimate effort by an incoming administration to keep its hands from being tied by a predecessor is a matter of opinion. But either way, a second resolution didn’t follow, leaving Trump able to pursue his own approach without being hindered by Obama’s legacy. Yet, as Entous lays out in almost painful detail, the Israelis and the Gulf States had been trying for years to deal with a powerful American ally that was eagerly pursuing policies they considered dangerous to their vital interests, and they acted accordingly.

Once Trump was in office, the Gulf States and the Israelis proceeded to follow up on their efforts of the previous year to persuade the new president to reject Obama’s path on both the Palestinians and Iran. In his reporting about Arab and Israeli efforts to build a relationship with and influence presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner in order to achieve their objective, Entous provides an interesting portrait of both their diplomacy and Kushner’s willingness to listen. But the truth is, no one in the new administration needed much persuasion to de-emphasize efforts to create a Palestinian state or reject the Iran nuclear deal.

While Obama’s hopes that the Iran nuclear deal would give Tehran a chance to “get right with the world” proved illusory, his one tangible contribution to Middle East peace was that he pushed Sunni Arab states into Israel’s arms. The Gulf Arabs are more fearful of Iran than they ever were of Israel. They now find the Jewish state to be a natural security partner along with a Trump administration that is determined to renegotiate a nuclear deal that only postponed the threat of an Iranian bomb while allowing the Islamist regime the freedom and the cash to fund terrorism and its adventure in Syria.

Nor was Trump’s shift on the Palestinians motivated solely by the desire of the new administration to reject all of its predecessors’ priorities. If, as Entous writes, the Palestinians are the big losers in Trump’s new Middle East, it’s not because the new president didn’t want to be the one to broker the “ultimate deal.” It’s because the Palestinians demonstrated that they were no more prepared to budge from their maximal demands with a less sympathetic Trump than they were with someone like Obama, who deeply sympathized with their ambitions.

Despite Obama’s repeated efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction, they chose never even to try and meet him halfway.

The problem with Entous’s narrative is that Obama, obsessed with pressuring Israel into more concessions, ignored Palestinians’ behavior and their refusal to compromise. It was Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas who torpedoed Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative in 2014, by choosing to make peace first with his Hamas rivals rather than with Israel and then making an end run around U.S. diplomacy by going to the U.N. to try to gain recognition of the Palestinians’ independence.

This account also failed to recognize the role that Abbas, though his official incitement of hate against Jews and his subsidies and pensions paid to terrorists and their families, had in discrediting the peace process among Israelis. Despite Obama’s repeated efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction, they chose never even to try and meet him halfway. For all of the insults from the White House directed at Netanyahu, thanks to Abbas’s refusal to seriously negotiate, the Israeli prime minister was never put to the test, never forced to reject a peace deal, since the Palestinians never let things get that far. Abbas was always too mindful of his need to compete with the Hamas terrorists for popularity ever to allow himself to be put in a position where he would be forced to choose between peace and continuing the conflict.

Indeed, the lesson that Obama and his staff never learned was that by treating such issues as unimportant and instead focusing on trying to make Netanyahu make concessions on Jerusalem — a consensus issue inside Israel — they were only strengthening the prime minister’s already strong domestic political standing.

The same pattern has held since Trump took office. Despite Trump’s direct personal demands, Abbas has refused to stop the terror subsidies. And despite being warned about incitement, he has doubled down on it, spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric as well as Holocaust denial to add to his statements denying Jewish ties to Jerusalem.

That has not stopped the Trump team from working on a peace plan that may be unveiled this summer and for which they will likely have the approval of both the Saudis and the Israelis. But since the Palestinian state they will propose will be smaller than previous offers the Palestinians have rejected, Abbas has already told the Saudis the answer will again be “no.”

The Trump team characterizes this as a bad business decision comparable to a decision not to buy Google stock when it was cheap, or passing on a real-estate property before its price rises. The Palestinians are baffled by this and insist that their position is one of justice, even as they undermine their cause by denying Israel’s legitimacy and making it obvious they won’t end the conflict on any terms.

The focus of Trump and the Gulf State Arabs on Iran as well as the carnage in Syria have demonstrated that Obama’s belief that Palestinian grievances are the root cause of Middle East conflict is a myth. While the alumni of his administration are still fuming about the way the region has gotten behind Trump, they need to acknowledge that it was their failure to be realistic about the Palestinians and their hopes about Iran that set the stage for the rejection of their policies. If it’s now Trump’s “New Middle East,” that’s only because Obama’s vision has been so thoroughly debunked by events.

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