Israel trumps Arab and Muslim world’s influence on US presidential candidates

First published by the Middle East Monitor on 10 October 2016

Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic US presidential nominee Hillary Clinton greet one another as they take the stage for their first debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, US September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

image from the Middle East Monitor showing Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, the two US presidential candidates.

As the United States’ presidential race enters its final stage, with elections due on 8 November, the two candidates have been making their final pitches to woo the voters in their direction. There is general agreement that the two candidates, US businessman and billionaire Donald Trump for the Republicans and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for the Democrats, are two of the least popular candidates ever to stand for this great office. A focus on personal rather than policy issues characterised the first two debates, leaving US voters and observers around the world perplexed at the prospect of either candidate becoming the next president.

Donald Trump

Trump, a candidate with no political experience, astonishingly won the GOP nomination on a platform of wanting to “make America great again”. His policies include building a wall along the border with Mexico and a promise that Mexico would pay for it, bringing jobs back to the US, particularly from Mexico and China and renegotiating trade deals that he thinks do not favour American workers. His appeal to African American voters was simply that there situation is so terrible “what do you have to lose” by voting for him.

When it comes to the Arab world, Trump is for crushing Daesh claiming he would “bomb the hell out of ISIS”, using another acronym for Daesh, and enhancing security through “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”.  He recently revised this to “extreme vetting” for migrants to ensure the US only accept immigrants who “share our values and respect our people”. Trump’s proposal for stemming the tide of refugees from Syria is to keep them in Syria stating “what I like is build a safe zone, it’s here, build a big beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier”. He would expect the Gulf states to pay for this even though he is “not a big fan” of Saudi Arabia, and that America had paid too much to “back them up”.

His stance on Iraq has been that he opposed the war on Iraq but thinks the US should have seized Iraq’s oil.

On Libya, Trump reversed his stance on US military intervention from: “We would be so much better off if Gaddafi would be in charge right now,” to “I didn’t mind surgical. And I said surgical. You do a surgical shot and you take him out.” Trump has been vocal in his criticism of his Democratic rival’s policy in Libya while she was secretary of state.

Under his administration, Trump promised Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi that “the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally, that Egypt can count on in the days and years ahead.”

Hilary Clinton

Unlike her Republican counterpart, Hilary Clinton’s stance on the Middle East is well known to the regional players from her days as secretary of state under the first Obama administration. Her deep knowledge of the region and generally warm relations with key regional players could help deliver greater American influence than has occurred under President Obama since she left office. However, strictly on policy issues there is unlikely to be a major shift to either a more hawkish or softer position on the key challenges.

Palestine and Israel

Support for and commitment to Israel, and particularly its security, have featured prominently in all recent US presidential elections and the current one has been no exception. The now mandatory “pilgrimage” to the main lobby group AIPAC’s conference to praise Israel and to reaffirm the US’ “unshakeable” commitment to it again featured in candidates’ campaign. Of all the candidates still standing at the time, only Democratic candidate Bernie Saunders missed the opportunity to state his position in person. The candidates effectively competed, at least in rhetoric to demonstrate their commitment to Israel, never once robustly criticising anything it does. Anyone listening would have thought Israel was not illegally occupying another people or in breach of countless UN Security Council resolutions or imposing an inhumane siege on Gaza.

Clinton sought to sway AIPAC’s audience by criticising Trump’s prior stance insisting “we need steady hands”, referring to the business mogul but not naming him. “Not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday and who knows what on Wednesday because everything is negotiable.” She nailed her colours to the mast insisting: “Well, my friends, Israel’s security is non-negotiable!”

Trump, who initially committed to being “neutral” on negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, causing a stir with Israel’s supporters at the time, changed his tune at AIPAC, unusually reading form a teleprompter. He said that he was “very pro-Israel”, touting the “many awards” he’s won, even claiming “there’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am”. Going on to emphasise America’s need to protect it. He reserved his criticisms for the Palestinians insisting they would have to end terror. “They have to stop with the terror because what they’re doing with the missiles and with the stabbings and with all of the other things that they do, it’s horrible and it’s gotta end.”

It is notable that Trump’s most recent “policy” related to the conflict is to “recognise Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel”. This he stated at an hour long meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Trump Tower during his visit to the US to make his annual speech to the UN General Assembly. This would have been music to Netanyahu’s ears, since the longstanding policy of successive US administrations has been to avoid this recognition, leaving it for the negotiations to determine the future of the holy city.

Both the Democratic and Republican party platforms saw a move in favour of Israel this year. TheRepublican platform reinstated a reference to Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital, and removed a reference to Palestine, while the Democratic party rejected an amendment to its platform “rebuking Israel”.

Trump’s dangerous promise to Netanyahu on Jerusalem suggests a wider problem for Arab and Muslim nations. While Israel works tirelessly to influence policy in its favour, Arab and Muslim nations sit on their hands and simply complain and occasionally express their disappointment at the lack of sympathy for their issues, particularly from the US. Their judgement has perhaps been that Trump will not win the race and therefore efforts to influence him were not productive. Well, there is still a slim chance that he may win and they will be left at the back of the queue when arguing for a more favourable approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. If Hilary Clinton wins, why would she be more sympathetic than she has been to Arab and Muslim issues when there has not been an attempt to move her thinking during the election campaign?

The Palestinians may be too weak to influence either Trump or Clinton on their own, but how can the collective economic power of the Arab and Muslim world not only fail to make gains in their favour but to even lose ground?

It seems Israel has “trumped” the Arab and Muslim world through tireless and effective work and the next president of the US will be kinder to it than his or her predecessors.

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