On Tuesday, President Trump told Israeli and Palestinians leaders that the U.S. would be recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is looking very likely that he will also relocate the American Embassy to Jerusalem, which—like the recognition itself—could set off huge protests and violence in the Middle East. At the same time, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is pushing a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. The contours of that deal are unknown, but the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is—according to the New York Times—floating a plan that has enraged Palestinians because of its one-sidedness but that may be backed by the White House. These stirrings are occurring during a time in which MBS—as I suppose we must call him—is embarking on domestic reforms (or purges) and exhibiting power (or aggression) on the world stage. The results so far are chaos and devastation in Yemen, an unsettled Lebanon, and Sunni–Shia conflict at dangerous levels all across the region. Israel, meanwhile, has shown a willingness to cooperate with the Sunni regimes against Iran.
To talk about all of this Mideast upheaval, I spoke by phone with Ilan Goldenberg, the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Benjamin Netanyahu’s political position was secure, the distinct (but both unsuccessful) ways in which Obama and Trump have approached the Middle East, and just how incompetent this administration really is.
Isaac Chotiner: What do you think of this likely embassy move and this announcement?
Ilan Goldenberg: Well first of all, they didn’t actually announce moving the embassy. What they announced was recognizing the capital. They think they are splitting the baby by doing this, but they aren’t splitting the baby. The Arab world doesn’t really care about where the embassy is. The Arab world cares about the United States recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That’s the key issue. We’ll see what we end up with. It could be nothing. It could be a day of protests and things calm down. Or it could be a hugely inflammatory situation that spirals out of control, putting American diplomats and others at risk, and generate a lot of violence. This is why no president has wanted to actually do this. There is only downside. There is no upside other than Trump’s domestic political constraints.
What do you think of any potential peace plan now, and the possibility of anyone getting behind it?
I think maybe the administration thinks people can get behind it, but who in the Arab world is going to want to talk to these guys right now? The king of Saudi Arabia has come out and condemned this already. The president invited [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas to come to Washington to visit him, and when he let him know they were recognizing the capital. … There is no way he can do that politically. He can’t be seen with Trump right now. He basically just dropped a grenade into Abbas’ domestic politics. The notion that now they can accept a peace proposal. … That is off the table for quite a while.
We had the leak of this supposed peace plan that Jared and the Saudis are doing, plus Trump supposedly making the decision about Jerusalem. Are these two things connected? Are they on independent tracks? What is going on?
They are connected in that these two things are highly related to each other, but not in that the administration is purposefully pushing these two things at the same time. If anything, it makes no sense to push them at the same time.
What you have with the embassy is a situation where, on the one hand, the administration is pushing a peace plan. On the other hand, because of congressional reality, the president has to sign a waiver or else begin the process of moving the embassy to Jerusalem. It makes no sense to move the embassy to Jerusalem right now if you’re about to launch a major peace plan. If you’re about to launch a major peace plan, the last thing you want to do is take this highly sensitive question of Jerusalem and just throw it into the mix.
But then how seriously do you take the peace plan?
I don’t buy the New York Times story that Mohammad bin Salman has some incredibly biased, anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel peace plan that he’s trying to squeeze the Palestinians on. To me, that seems a little simplistic. I don’t know why he’d put himself out on that much of a limb. Maybe. He’s done some other questionably reckless things that might make you think, “Hey, he might actually do this.”
Yeah, I was going to say …
So it’s possible, but that’s a huge political risk for him to take. For him to do something like that is really risky given all his other priorities and things that he’s trying to do. Why take that risk right now, in terms of his own domestic politics? Other reforms that he’s making are high-risk political maneuvers, and this seems like a much lesser priority.
From what I’ve heard, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians know what it is the Trump administration is likely to actually propose. I think they’re actually going about it relatively seriously. I’d like to say that the Trump administration is unusual in a lot of ways, but on Israel-Palestine thus far, they’ve been incredibly conventional.
Even Jared Kushner in his statement at Brookings at the Saban Forum [on Sunday] was quite conventional. He said, “I want to go for a big deal. I want to get the final status issues. That’s what really matters here, and there’s no dealing with the Arabs unless you get a deal with Israel dealing with the Arabs, and there’s no Arab-Israeli peace without a Palestinian-Israeli peace.” Those are conventional statements that every previous administration would have also said, so I think they’re trying their best and are serious.
The only problem is that Bibi Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas are not going to do a deal. You can try all that you want to try, and you can be very serious about it, but these two guys are not going to cut a deal with each other.
Would Israel be happy with the Saudi plan, if it was indeed being pushed?
Israel would be happy with a plan like that, not because they think the Palestinians would accept it, but because the Palestinians wouldn’t accept, and then Israel would blame the Palestinians for all the negativity, and put it all on them, and see what they can get out of Trump.
But what Jared Kushner was describing publicly was completely different from what you hear in that New York Times story. If Kushner and company are really serious about doing something here, and the president wants the ultimate deal, I can’t believe that this is ultimately what they are going to come up with. It would be the height of incompetence.
[Laughs.] Yeah. I guess that should give me at least some pause, but they seem to be relatively serious on this issue.
The fact that the Times story had no American officials or Israeli officials sourced in it is what gives me a little bit of pause. What Kushner said publicly yesterday sounded like somebody who actually wanted to cut a deal, and somebody who actually wants to cut a deal wouldn’t be doing this. These things are just directly in contradiction with each other.
Regardless, it does seem like Israel is being drawn somewhat closer to a bunch of the Arab states because of this joint fear of Iran and the fact that you have an American president who is super simpatico with Arab dictatorships and who strongly dislikes Iran.
Yes, but there’s limitations to it. Israel and the Gulf states are increasingly cooperating on how to counter Iran and on broader security questions, but there’s a limitation to it. The limitation is the Palestinians. The Arabs will not go public with any of it unless you see progress on the Palestinian issue. They will quietly say that, “Yeah, the Israelis aren’t our real enemy. The Iranians are.” They will work with the Israelis quietly, but they’re not going to do the types of big, public things, which is where real cooperation happens, unless you have progress on the Palestinians.
The Israelis are constantly piping up and saying, “This is the story,” and the Arabs are constantly not piping up.
But I assume with the current government in Israel you’re not going to have major progress on the Palestinian issue.
Yeah. You’re not going to make progress with the current government, absolutely not, and so that limits them now. The Arab regimes don’t mind Bibi, and they’re willing to work with him, especially on Iran, but they don’t trust him on the Palestinians. They fear that any kind of political, public step that they make, he’ll somehow find a way to break his promise when it comes to the Palestinians, and so they’re not going to work with him on that.
It seems a little crazy how all these regional dynamics are being driven by fear of Iran. Obviously, the Iranian regime is a very problematic regime in all these different ways, but to have a Saudi government reacting in such an over the top way in Lebanon and Yemen and Qatar seems nuts. Do you agree?
I don’t think it’s necessarily sensible, but I also don’t think it’s solely about Iran. I think that what’s going on is that you have all these security vacuums that have opened up in the region, all these gaping holes, civil wars, Iraq, Yemen, Syria. Everybody, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, the Israelis are all very nervous about losing influence in those areas but also see these various conflicts as opportunities to increase their influence, and so they all respond by dumping weapons, and money, and support to different actors in these fights without sometimes thinking it through. The end result is they take these small fights and they basically amp them up on steroids.
I’d say that there are two things going on in the Middle East. There’s the collapse of the states, which is almost the spark to the fire, and then there’s a competition among states, especially the Saudis and the Iranians, which is the kerosene on top. The issue is what to do about it. Both the Trump and Obama administrations have failed to contain this problem.
The Obama administration, I think justifiably, made the Iran nuclear question the first issue and did a good job on that, but did not do enough to push back on Iran’s behavior. Also, the Saudis knew that Obama didn’t like them, and that made them very anxious, so the Saudis became very aggressive because they were anxious and felt alone, and the Iranians became aggressive because they felt like nobody would push back on them.
Now under Trump, you have the Saudis feeling that they have a green light to do whatever they want, so they’re also being aggressive, and the Iranians feel like they’re inevitably on a pathway to confrontation with the United States, so they’re also being aggressive. You can see no middle ground here.
OK so then what would be the more sensible policy?
For Saudi Arabia, it’s saying, “We trust you. We’re friends with you,” like Trump has done. “We’re there for you. We feel your pain, but you come talk to us, and you work with us, and you communicate with us before you do things like launch wars in Yemen, and go after the Qataris, and try to depose the prime minister of Lebanon.”
With the Iranians, it’s not all-out confrontation, but it’s also not ignoring the problem. Instead it’s what we did on the nuclear question, which is go to pressure and engagement. There’s places where we need to punch the Iranians in the nose. We need to interdict weapons. We need to embarrass what they’re doing. But at the same time, we need to also communicate with them and say, “We’re ready to negotiate. We’re ready to cut deals.”
The issue with the Saudi one, though, is that then it seems like you may settle into the same status quo we’ve had largely for decades, and you could argue that it hasn’t done us a whole lot of good.
Mohammad bin Salman is a complicated character. I tend to agree that he’s trying to do a bunch of really revolutionary things domestically that might be really positive, and can actually move Saudi Arabia forward. These things are also very dangerous and could end up destabilizing Saudi Arabia, because he’s basically shaking up the entire social contract with the ruling family. There’s plenty of princes who are really unhappy and are happy to try to go after him.
Even as he’s doing what I think is somewhat positive on the domestic scene, though risky, on the international scene, he’s just all over the place. He’s actually the opposite of what we’ve had with Saudi Arabia in the past. Usually we’ve had a very cautious foreign policy that we can work with, but sometimes is too slow and too difficult to work with, and absolutely no reform domestically while their problems get worse and worse. Now we have them going 100 miles per hour.
Does 9/11 count as their cautious foreign policy? I’m half-kidding.
Actually, 9/11 counts as a spot where they didn’t address a lot of their domestic problems and it became a foreign policy problem.
To bring this back to Israel: I feel like once a month I see a tweet that says, “Breaking: Israeli prosecutors on the verge of indicting Netanyahu.” Netanyahu’s still there. What is his political situation right now, and how stable is it?
It’s unclear. He’s likely to get indicted at some point, but even when he gets indicted, it’s not necessarily clear he’ll leave. Nobody really knows when this is going to happen or what the indictment’s ultimate charges will be.
The one thing that’s happened is his popularity is going down. People are getting sick of this in Israel, so that’s an indicator. The question is whether there’s a credible alternative, which has always been the problem. He’s really turned himself in Israel into Mr. Security, and none of his main opponents have ever been able to pass that threshold test, which is so important to the Israeli voter.
We actually had a very interesting situation this past week where there was a bill in the Knesset that would essentially force the police if they recommend an indictment to keep that secret, and essentially shut them up. It was seen as a Netanyahu-orchestrated thing, and it caused massive protests in Israel that then caused Netanyahu to pull it back.
What do you think the anti-Netanyahu strains in Israel, the people who were out protesting, will make of the recognition?
In Israel, this move will be broadly greeted with support. You cannot find an Israeli politician or official who opposes the notion of making Jerusalem the capital. So I don’t think this will penetrate Israeli domestic politics in any way whatsoever. It will just be seen as overwhelmingly positive thing, unless it results in major protests or violence on the Palestinian side. But even if it does, Israel will blame the Palestinians for that.