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Lecturer says Trump’s dealmaking could work in Middle East

Shai Feldman

Shai Feldman, a professor of politics at Brandeis University, believes President Donald J. Trump could broker a deal that ends the Arab/Israeli conflict, because the most contentious issues contradict a golden rule of negotiation.

“In the Arab/Israeli conflict the devil is not in the details, in the Arab/Israeli conflict the devil is in the principles — the details are bridgeable,” said Feldman.

Feldman prefaced his lecture at the University of Arizona earlier this month with an apology to  skeptics of the current administration. With an unabashed dry wit, he assured the audience they would leave the event happier — or be convinced he should be institutionalized.

He provided three reasons why Trump has a chance: Trump is radically different, and his approach would contrast with the attempts during the last three U.S. administrations; Trump’s inattention to details will be a plus; and Trump’s ability to market ideas could prove to be his greatest asset.

Feldman was the keynote speaker at the fourth annual Jeffrey Plevan Memorial Lecture series presented by the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies on Tuesday, March 21. He’s the director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis, and the author of multiple books including his latest text, “Arabs and Israelis: Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East,” which stems from a class Feldman and three of his colleagues teach together at Brandeis.   

He began his talk, “Israel and the U.S. in the Trump Era,” by highlighting five major campaign promises made by now President Trump: recommit to pressing security issues in the Middle East, destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS or Daesh), retract the United Nations’ Iran nuclear deal, demand proper financial support from nations that depend on the United States for security and restore the broken relationship between the U.S. and Israel, including moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The bigger deal Trump spoke of would be to successfully end the Arab/Israeli conflict, Feldman said.

“It’s quite ridiculous to try to talk about an administration 50 or 60 days after its inauguration,” said Feldman. “But so far, interestingly enough, the administration, and President Trump personally, has managed within 50 or 60 days, already, to walk back from most of these commitments.”

As the crowd chuckled in response, Feldman said this policy-based retreat makes a lot of sense.

“First of all, there is no dramatic change in the U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS yet,” he said. “There is some change in the sense that President Trump has authorized an increase in the numbers of soldiers on the ground, particularly in Syria.

“But the reality is that the American strategy, to so-called degrade and defeat ISIS, was set in place by the Obama administration.”

It’s unclear whether the reason for more U.S. troops in Syria is to topple Daesh, or prevent a violent confrontation between Turkey and the Kurds following their defeat, he explained. The greatest concern, for countries like Turkey, is not defeating Daesh, but who replaces them when they fall and how to assure this terror group doesn’t simply reconfigure.

“ISIS is the No. 2 enemy of almost everybody in the Middle East, but it’s the No. 1 enemy of almost no one in the Middle East,” Feldman said. “So the reason why all this is taking so long, is because all the players have other worries.”

The Trump administration has yet to tear up the nuclear accord with Iran, or scale back stateside security protections for nations like Saudi Arabia, Feldman said, but contrary to what many people understand, the shortfall between U.S. and Israel relations under former President Barack Obama was more ceremonial.

“U.S./Israeli defense and intelligence cooperation have never been as close as they have been during the eight years of the Obama administration,” he said. “What Obama has miserably failed [at] is to convey the emotional feeling of his commitment to Israel, and his attachment.”

Conversely, Trump has already conveyed to Israelis and the American Jewish community that he is emotionally committed to Israel. “In reality, for now, except for that — nothing has changed,” Feldman said.

Instead of taking a hardliner stance on settlement expansion, especially in the West Bank, President Trump has simply asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to slow the pace of further construction. 

The realities of the Middle East have a frustrating way of imposing themselves, which are far removed from “alternative facts,” he said. But Feldman lauded leaders like King Abdullah II of Jordan, who visited Trump in order to tutor the new president on the implications of relocating the American embassy in Israel, and other Middle East complexities.

Feldman went on to praise Trump for creating a superb foreign and defense policy team in the White House — minus the resignation of Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, who stepped away from his position following an FBI investigation into his ties to Russia.

Although he suspected Flynn would not last, Feldman admitted his prediction was off by 11 months.

From Defense Secretary James Mattis to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump assembled a team of experienced leaders that are quite noteworthy, Feldman said, which is why there’s been a slight withdrawal from unrealistic policies regarding the Middle East.

“This is a group of people that are highly professional, not ideological,” he said, “they live in reality, not ‘alternative facts.’”

Robert and Elaine Clark have been attending the Center for Judaic Studies’ lectures all season. They were happy to hear Feldman say that everyone has a story, which you may not agree with, but must respect.

The couple said they are unimpressed with the Trump administration so far. They find it disconcerting to have a president who can’t be bothered with details, or views politics, especially regarding foreign policy in the Middle East, in absolutes.

“It appears as though our current president sees things in very black-and-white, and that may endear him to at least some of the more conservative elements of Israel,” Robert Clark said.

“But there is no black-and-white, everything is grey,” Elaine Clark added, when politics is concerned.

Whether it’s a case of showmanship or not, Robert Clark was relieved to hear someone talk about Trump’s ill-prepared appearance as an asset rather than a liability.   

“That’s always been a concern,” he said. “Most of us spend a lot of time preparing for whatever it is we are going to do.”