Moderate Arab nations must lead in the Trump era
Assertions that US President Donald Trump is unfair to the needs of the Arab world are misleading and contradict facts, much like the claim that he “hates” Muslims. Trump’s efforts to crack down on Islamic extremists who have openly vowed to kill Americans has been widely misinterpreted and wrongly denounced as a “Muslim ban.” It is clearly also not true that he has abandoned core issues of justice in the Arab world.
So far, when you look more closely, Trump’s actions are those of a president who is clearly seeking to embrace a more centrist approach to Middle East challenges. Although he met this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Iran and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Trump has already started to build a strong base of understanding with moderate Arab leaders.
His first face-to-face meeting with a Middle East leader was with Jordan’s King Abdallah, who had also met with Vice President Mike Pence in Washington. Trump spoke by phone with Netanyahu two days after his inauguration, but called Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi the next day. Days later, Trump made two important calls, one to Saudi King Salman and another to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
It was not just the calls. When Netanyahu’s extremist government announced it would expand illegal Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer issued a diplomatic reprimand.
“The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements, or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders, may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” he said.
“As the president has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region. The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”
Pro-Israel mainstream American journalists pounced on Spicer, insisting the statement was contradictory, but Spicer and Trump did not back down. These are not the actions of a president who has written off Arab interests or embraces a “Muslim ban.” But they are also not the only ones.
President Trump presents an opportunity for the Arab world to redefine itself and energize the pursuit of peace and justice. A proactive Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE can positively impact US politics and make Middle East peace possible.
Last week, as the US State Department was preparing to issue a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Trump intervened. The State Department release focused on the suffering of Jews, but Trump issued a new statement that eliminated the word “Jews.” He was denounced by leading Jewish-American organizations, but a spokeswoman cited Trump’s close family members who are Jewish.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka is married to Orthodox Jewish businessman Jared Kushner, who was appointed a top Trump adviser. Ivanka converted to Judaism for the marriage, and Trump’s grandchildren are Jewish. His spokeswoman said Trump wanted to be “more inclusive.” The Nazis murdered nearly 12 million people, including 6 million Jews and 6 million Russians, Slavs, gypsies, Arabs and others.
During his candidacy, Trump declared that his administration would be “neutral” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Although he is perceived as pro-Israel, he is very familiar with the Palestinians. One of the most successful Palestinian-American entrepreneurs, Farouk Shami, has known and worked with Trump for years. Long before his election, Shami predicted Trump would be fair in addressing Arab and Palestinian concerns.
It is profoundly foolish and misguided to define Trump on the distorted and biased reporting of the Western media, which has a history of promoting and fueling anti-Arab and anti-Muslim stereotypes.
Worse is to believe the extremist assertions of the anti-Trump activists who claim to support Palestine, but have done everything possible to prevent the implementation of the only solution to the conflict, the two-state solution, which would create a sovereign Palestine in the territories occupied by Israel.
Trump is much more complex than his critics will allow the public to believe. They have sought to simplify him as a racist, twisting facts about his suspension of immigration from only seven of the 50 Muslim nations. If Trump were truly anti-Muslim, he would have suspended immigration from all Muslim nations to allow time to implement more stringent application screenings.
What the Arab world needs is to assert its moderate voices. That means leading moderate voices must come together to form an effective coalition. Who is this coalition leadership? Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which Trump has already recognized in his outreach.
He presents an opportunity for the Arab world to redefine itself and energize the pursuit of peace and justice. A proactive Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE can positively impact US politics and make Middle East peace possible.
Arab nationalism as a political force was first embraced by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. That effort failed mainly because Egypt was militarily ill-equipped to confront Israeli aggression, and because of the turmoil that plagued Syria then, and still plagues a Syria dominated by Iran today.
Trump has given the Arab world a rare opportunity to forge a moderate coalition to advance Arab nationalism and the true rights of the Arab street, not through revolution, protest or violence, but through strategic partnerships. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the UAE is the only Middle East and Arab strategy that makes any sense.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian-American former journalist and political columnist. Email him at [email protected]