The effects of Donald Trump’s trip last month to the Middle East continue to multiply. The focus, quite correctly has been on the breach between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But the effects of the Saudis’ wooing of Trump are felt throughout the region.
Flattering the president of the United States is a sensible thing for most world leaders to do, but this president, basking in all-encompassing flattery, becomes immediately susceptible to the views of his supplicants. Trump came away from his Middle East trip having bought whole cloth into the Saudi narrative of regional politics, and his criticism of Qatar clearly spurred on what has transpired since. But it was not only the Saudi royal family that captured Trump’s attention.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was much less ostentatious in his adulation of Trump, but he was partnering with and praising Trump before Barack Obama had even left the White House. Despite Trump’s words about securing the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, the president’s selection of settlement funder David Friedman as ambassador and his use of Jason Greenblatt and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, both prominent pro-Israel figures as his envoys, demonstrated early on that the Trump approach was going to be rooted in the Israeli view to a much greater extent than prior administrations.
In this light, it behooves observers to consider the meaning behind the decision by the Palestinian Authority to step up its action against the Hamas government in Gaza. In recent days, the PA requested that Israel cut the power supply to Gaza, a request that Israel quickly honored. Shortly thereafter, it surfaced that the PA had stopped paying the regular stipends that have become so controversial to Palestinian prisoners (including a limited number of Hamas prisoners).
It would be a mistake to think this was part of some unified strategy between the PA and its regional allies, taking advantage of Trump’s view of the region and his apparent inability to grasp the regional complexities. Al-Monitor quoted Issa Qaraqe, the chairman of the Palestinian Committee for Prisoners’ Affairs, saying that “This decision was taken by the PA amid the ongoing dispute with Hamas. The decision is part of the [PA’s] pressure on the movement and has nothing to do with the United States and Israel calling on the PA to stop paying the Palestinian prisoners [currently in Israeli jails].”
Indeed, the cutoff of payments affected only 277 Hamas-affiliated prisoners, hardly a number that would mollify the United States and Israel on this matter.
But it would also be a mistake to believe that Trump’s visit and subsequent statements have nothing to do with the decisions being made in Ramallah, as well as in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Although Qarage is very likely correct that the PA decision is about the Fatah-Hamas dispute, the stepped-up activity coming at the same time as the Qatar-Saudi Arabia escalation is no coincidence. Indeed, it is connected by several factors.
Unlikely Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
At this point, Jared Kushner’s report to his father-in-law seems unlikely to include a recommendation for a robust effort at an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. All the past obstacles—the imbalance of power, the shifting demands, the Palestinian split, the lack of incentives for Israel—are still there. New ones have also appeared, including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson putting Mahmoud Abbas on the spot politically by claiming, incorrectly, that the Palestinian president had agreed to stop payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners. There’s also the Trump administration’s rumored displeasure with Abbas for refusing to receive US Ambassador David Friedman (an odd objection since US ambassadors are sent to Israel, not the PA, who usually meet with US special envoys).
But Trump has already accepted the Israeli view on numerous matters. He has stated that settlements are not blocking the peace process. He has clearly prioritized the payments to Palestinian prisoners. He does not seem to understand why Abbas would refuse to meet an ambassador who has enthusiastically funded some of the most radical settlement projects. And, perhaps most of all, he has been slippery at best regarding a two-state solution.
Abbas, therefore, must find a way to show Trump that the Palestinians can contribute something significant to his regional efforts. The one thing he can do that no other Arab agent can is to take on Hamas. Despite Hamas’ having distanced itself in recent years from its Muslim Brotherhood roots, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt still see it as part of that broad and diffuse movement.
They’re not wrong in that. The chief threat that the Saudi and Egyptian government see in the Muslim Brotherhood is its potential to rally popular support and win politically. The coup engineered by Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi is not an ideal cure to what happened in Egypt. Reversing votes with military coups tends to increase popular dissent. Whether Hamas has any real connection to the Brotherhood or not, it represents the same sort of problem in the eyes of the regional dictators.
But Hamas is a Palestinian nationalist movement as well as an Islamist one, and as such, other Arab leaders must tread very carefully in opposing it. The PA has its own difficulties in confronting Hamas, but an internal Palestinian dispute is a very different matter from an Arab government fighting against a Palestinian nationalist group, especially one that was the victor in the last full Palestinian election.
Abbas surely chose this moment in great measure because the Saudi-UAE blockade and sanctions on Qatar dramatically increase Hamas’ already considerable vulnerability. Qatar has been Hamas’ main benefactor for several years. Egypt, which still mistrusts Hamas, has been working with the Islamist Gaza government to try to stem the flow of weapons to more radical groups in the Sinai Peninsula that disdain the governments on both sides of the Gaza-Egypt border.
Egypt, for its part, does not want to find itself in any way responsible for Gaza on a permanent basis. Nothing would please the Sisi government more than to see the Palestinian Authority back in control of the overcrowded and poverty-stricken Strip. Although Hamas has found some success in improving relations with Egypt, based on common enemies, this has not stopped Egypt from continuing its cooperation with Israel in blockading Gaza.
Pressing Hamas by cutting the already insufficient supply of electricity to Gaza while withholding salaries to key Hamas personnel in Israeli prisons are tactics aimed at causing more instability and difficulty for the Hamas government.
Ironically, Israel is probably hoping that the PA’s strategy works well enough to avoid or at least postpone another round of fighting with Hamas. Netanyahu’s scandals have faded to some degree, and his political position is relatively stable right now. Although the Trump administration will loudly applaud Israeli action in Gaza, Europe would not be so positive, and the strain in that relationship has been worsening of late. In short, a burst of nationalism through an attack on Gaza is not needed right now. If the PA can destabilize Hamas without drawing hundreds of rockets over the Gaza border into Israel, that is likely just fine with Netanyahu, at least for the moment.
The Saudi blockade of Qatar, like all such actions, affects the population with shortages of goods and services. For Qatar, an import economy where Qatari nationals make up only about 12% of the population, the impact is magnified. As a wealthy country, however, Qatar is much better equipped to deal with a crisis than Gaza.
The people of Gaza have endured the worst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ever since 1948. Isolated by Egypt until 1967, then bearing the brunt of the Israeli occupation and, finally, physically isolated since 2007, the people of this densely populated strip have suffered with each action of the parties involved in the conflict there.
The current round of collective punishment may result in Hamas deciding that its only recourse is to launch rockets at Israel, which will surely bring an Israeli response that will only cause more devastation. Or, it may try to wait out the PA and see how much suffering Abbas is willing to inflict on the people of Gaza. Either way, the people lose.
Israel and Egypt are no closer to ending the siege on the strip, although Egypt has helped Gaza with some fuel to ease the electricity crisis. Few in the international community are acting, despite some wailing and lamenting over the awful conditions in Gaza.
All of this is happening in the context of ongoing environmental deterioration in the strip, which will make Gaza unlivable in as little as three years from now.
The Trump Effect
Trump’s effect on Saudi strategy has rippled throughout the region. Of course, he did not create the tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, much less the rift between the PA and Hamas. But by adopting the Saudi and Israeli narratives, he has created a strategic environment that encourages more aggressive steps by the stronger parties in those conflicts.
Trump surely has no idea he did any of this, which is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of all. But he has also, unwittingly, begun an experiment of policy.
Until now, the Saudis were reluctant to push too hard on Qatar. Now, they are blockading the country and have presented the Qataris with a maximalist set of demands. The aim of all this is to isolate Iran regionally and deliver a sharp blow to populist Islamist movements like Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah (as distinct from the more sectarian and self-interested groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda). It also quashes the opening of Arab discourse that al-Jazeera, for all its many flaws, represents.
Will the Saudi offensive work? If it does, it will re-entrench the Arab dictatorship model that thrived for so long in the region. That may or not be the model that someone like Mahmoud Abbas prefers, but it is now the only wagon to which he can hitch his hopes.
Trump has created the opportunity to see if that tactic will work. If it does, hopes for democracy will have suffered a serious defeat. If it fails, the recent revival of Iranian regime change in US policy circles shows we are not learning from defeats and mistakes.