Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election was greeted by some Israeli right-wingers as an endorsement of future intransigence.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the hardline nationalist Jewish Home party, declared that, as a result of Mr Trump’s victory, the “era of the Palestinian state is over” given “the president-elect’s outlook as it appears in his platform”. And in an attempt to ratchet up political pressure on Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of his trip to Washington on Wednesday, Mr Bennett warned the Israeli Prime Minister that if the words “Palestinian state” were mentioned at the meeting with Mr Trump, “the earth will shake”.
It is true that the new president has trumpeted his commitment to Israel, referencing his various donations to, and involvement with, Israel-related causes. He took a hawkish stance on Israel-Palestine during the campaign and stated his intention to move the US embassy to Jerusalem if elected. And since winning, he has appointed a staunch supporter of West Bank settlements, David Friedman, as his ambassador to Israel.
But looking more broadly, Mr Trump has consistently stated his ambition to secure peace in the Middle East. In a 2007 interview with the Observer, he suggested that if he became president, “first, I’d try and solve the problems in the Middle East … Everything can be solved if you have talent.”
During the 2016 Republican primaries, Mr Trump declared his intention to be “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to give himself the best chance of making “the toughest deal in the world.”
In a Wall Street Journal interview, two days after his election victory, he referred to peace between Israel and the Palestinians as the “ultimate deal,” declaring that, “as a dealmaker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made.” And, two weeks ago, the White House declared that the expansion of Israeli settlements, while not “an impediment to peace,” was not “helpful in achieving that goal.” Mr Trump was again signalling his intention to make that deal.
But, as previous presidents have discovered, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not occur in a vacuum and is extremely sensitive to shifts in the wider region.
For the past few years, the Israeli-Lebanese border has been relatively quiet – at least compared with previous years – as Hizbollah has focused its attention on bolstering Bashar al-Assad in Syria. However, if, as he has indicated, Mr Trump gives Assad and his supporters a free hand to crush their opponents, then the battle-hardened Hizbollah guerrillas are highly likely to turn their attention back to their goal of destroying Israel. Israeli intelligence has already detected a massive stockpile of weapons, including rockets that can reach targets anywhere in Israel, and determined that the group is actively pursuing chemical weapons. This arsenal has been funnelled to Hizbollah, amidst the chaos in Syria, by its principal backer, Iran.
Mr Trump’s aminus towards the Iranian regime runs deep. In his first major television interview on NBC in 1980, which took place amid the Iranian hostage crisis, he expressed his desire to intervene in Iran, declaring it would ensure “respect” and make America an “oil-rich nation.”
He has frequently repeated these convictions. During the 2016 campaign, he often berated the Obama administration for being “weak” on Iran, denouncing the nuclear deal and the “ineffective” US response to Iran’s export of terrorism.
After imposing new sanctions on Iran for its recent missile test and support of terrorism, Mr Trump followed up with a tweet: “Iran is playing with fire – they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”
Yet if Mr Trump backs Assad, this will boost Iran in Syria, where its influence is stronger than any other power. Above all, it will free up Hizbollah to attack Israel. The contradiction of strengthening Iran in Syria, while simultaneously ratcheting up tensions with Tehran elsewhere, is likely to lead to a broader Middle East war, not the peace deal that Trump believes he alone can broker.
Charlie Laderman is a lecturer at the War Studies Department, King’s College London. This is adapted from ‘Donald Trump: The Making of a Worldview, co-written with Professor Brendan Simms of the University of Cambridge, and available now on Amazon