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Trump, Jerusalem and a dispensable Arab region

Dec 07,2017 - Last updated at Dec 07,2017

For all its drama, controversy, and importance, the expected American government decision this week to formally recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and perhaps move its embassy must be appreciated within the wider context of how Washington makes Middle East policy decisions. This suggests to me that the Jerusalem issue for the US is more a symptom of existing political legacies rather than a unique provocative move that generates new realities. It is significant for confirming what has been clear since the early 1970s: For Washington, the Arab countries comprise the first dispensable region in the world, and they can be treated with disdain forever.

My visit to Washington, DC, earlier this week and discussions with analysts who follow the Middle East closely convince me that we must reconcile five critical aspects of what the US government does and says in the Middle East, in order to decipher Washington’s actual policy aims in the region.

These five are:

1) The lingering inconsistencies, imprecision and frequent changes in policy statements within assorted government agencies on issues like Syria, Qatar-GCC, Palestine-Israel, and others;

2) Whether presidential tweets on foreign affairs should be seen as serious policy directives, or just whimsical, emotional blasts by a policy-challenged, facts-light, super-egotistical and often childish mind;

3) The various actual military and diplomatic actions of the US on the ground, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and other places, that speak louder than words or tweets;

4) The question of whether President Trump’s Mideast policies aim mainly to enhance American national security and well-being, or rather respond primarily to American domestic political constituencies that he sees as critical to his incumbency and Israeli interests — including wealthy donors, rightwing Zionist nationalists Evangelical Christian fundamentalists, and assorted extremists who support Arab autocrats more than they value human dignity, genuine stability, or democratic governance; and,

5) The personnel President Trump appoints to manage his Mideast policies, particularly his Israel-Palestine team that is simultaneously inexperienced on the issues at hand and also dominated by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and fellow supporters of Israeli positions on settlements, a “unified Jerusalem” under Israeli control, and other Israeli positions, rather than trying to play an impartial mediation role that serves the equal rights of Arabs and Israelis, while also enhancing American interests.

If we can understand such core dynamics, we might learn what the US is trying to achieve in the Middle East under President Trump. The current decision on moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose pre-1967 Arab side remains under Israeli occupation, may turn out to be a symbolic decision that pleases those pro-Zionist and pro-settlement fanatics Trump seems to favour, while also continuing the American policy of not making deep unilateral moves in Jerusalem until the status of the entire city is agreed upon in direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. We should know this week.

Many fascinating arguments on this are being offered these days, among the most useful of which is the analysis and survey data of Dr Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution which I recommend to any interested person.

My own conclusion on how Washington has behaved on Jerusalem and the many other dynamic issues in the region is a stark sense that the United States under the Trump administration has an “Arab countries” policy, and a separate set of policies for other issues across and beyond this region, such as energy and investment flows, trade and weapons purchases from the US, fighting terrorism, and countering Iran. The new Jerusalem position confirms what has been clear for decades, that the Arab world has become the world’s first informally designated dispensable region, i.e., the Arab countries can collapse into civil wars, sectarian strife, destroyed cities, mass refugee flows, environmental exhaustion, and devastated economies, without serious reaction from the United States because these countries are more or less meaningless to the United States’ well-being.

The important issues for the US where Arabs are concerned are Israel’s security, the preservation of Arab autocrats, maintaining global energy exports and containing terrorism. Those goals are more or less all achieved. Everything else that matters to the 400 million people of the Arab world — decent jobs, housing, healthcare and education, human dignity, opportunity, security, human and national rights — seems to be totally meaningless for American policymakers. This is why Washington can make its decision on the Jerusalem issue almost totally on the basis of responding to Israeli and pro-Israeli parties that are important to it, while ignoring international law, the rights and sentiments of Palestinians, and the views of billions of Christians, Muslims, and Jews around the world who also care about a peaceful and shared Jerusalem.

 

The reason that American policy rests on a foundation of disdain for dispensable Arab people and societies is mainly that Arab government leadership for decades has largely failed to give our region either security and prosperity, or a respected voice in the world. I wish the evidence supported a more positive conclusion, but if that evidence exists, it must be in a secret vault somewhere, far, far away from Jerusalem.

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