Israel, Egypt emerging as Trump’s top allies in the Middle East
Israel and Egypt are emerging as US President Donald Trump’s top allies in the Middle East as he tries to strengthen US ties in the region with a focus on countering Iran’s influence and fighting Islamic extremists.
In his first few days in office, Trump had separate telephone conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He invited both leaders to visit him in Washington, with Netanyahu’s trip scheduled for early February, a White House statement said. With Sisi, Trump “discussed a visit to the United States in the future” but apparently did not fix a date, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
Netanyahu and Sisi were the first leaders from the Middle East to have direct contact with Trump since the inauguration. From what is publicly known, the new president has yet to speak with leaders of other US allies such as Turkey, Jordan or the Gulf countries.
Trump and Netanyahu “agreed to continue to closely consult on a range of regional issues, including addressing the threats posed by Iran”, the White House said. “The president affirmed his unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security and stressed that countering ISIL and other radical Islamic terrorist groups will be a priority for his administration”, the statement added, using a different acronym for the Islamic State (ISIS).
Following Trump’s inauguration, Israel announced a major expansion of settlements on Palestinian territory in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, who had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu, saw the settlements as a factor preventing a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in December allowed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the practice.
In contrast, Trump did not comment on the settlement expansion, which is considered illegal under international law. The new administration’s stance is seen as an encouragement for unilateral Israeli action. “The president emphasised that peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties,” the White House said.
In his conversation with Sisi, Trump discussed “military assistance to Egypt and working with Egypt to ensure that assistance most effectively supports the Egyptian military’s fight against terrorism”, Spicer said in reference to Egypt’s battles with Islamic militants on the Sinai peninsula. In addition, Trump “offered to discuss ways the United States could support Egypt’s economic reform programme”, the spokesman said.
US media reported that Trump was planning to designate the Muslim Brotherhood — Sisi’s main political adversary — a terrorist organisation. The Egyptian president came to power in 2013 after toppling Muhammad Morsi, a senior Brotherhood member.
Trump’s overtures to Israel and Egypt are partially motivated by a perceived need to reassure traditional US partners in the Middle East. During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump argued that Obama was weak on terrorism and had abandoned key US allies, Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said. “So it’s not surprising that Trump is moving very quickly” to re-establish close ties with Israel and Egypt,” he added.
Trager said Israel and Egypt fit Trump’s priority of fighting terrorism in the Middle East and were seen as trusted “local partners”. Egypt can expect that US military aid under Trump will not be tied to political issues, including democratic reforms, but the Sisi government is likely to be under an obligation to deliver results. So far, reports on that front were “mixed”, Trager said. Egypt’s security forces have been fighting ISIS and other militant groups in the Sinai but are yet to assert control over the territory.
Trump’s US-Israel-Egypt triangle could face other challenges as well. The new president’s foreign policy agenda foresees a decidedly pro- Israel approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which could anger Egypt. “Egyptians have a soft spot for the Palestinians,” said Hisham Fahmy, chief executive officer of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt.
One controversial issue could be Trump’s plan to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a project pushed by his nominee for the post of US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Moving the embassy would be a strong signal of US support for Israel’s claim to the whole of the city, which is seen by Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
CNN reported that Trump’s team had informed US allies that it was moving the embassy to Jerusalem but Spicer said no decision had been taken. “We’re at the very early stages of that decision-making process,” the White House spokesman said. Israeli broadcaster Channel 2 has reported that, under a compromise deal, Friedman could live in Jerusalem but the embassy itself would remain in Tel Aviv.
Fahmy expressed hope that the “reality of the situation” in the Middle East as well as objections raised by Egypt and other US partners would influence the Trump administration’s stance. “Sisi will bring the Palestinians into the equation,” he said.
- Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul
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