Trump, the absent-present guest at the Arab Summit
The Palestinian problem is set to be a priority issue at the Arab Summit, which will convene Wednesday on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan. The US president has expressed readiness to return the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the front burner; it has slid to the bottom of Middle East priorities because of preoccupations with the war on Daesh, the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and Iran’s regional ambitions.
The renewed US interest in finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, however, is clashing with the US stance at the UN where it fully endorses Israel’s positions and has protected it from both criticism and accountability.
This divergence at the UN is not limited to the Palestinian-Israeli issue; it also concerns Russia and Iran. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has been confrontational and firm with those two unlike the messages coming from the White House.
Yet this may not be a divergence among the White House, the UN ambassador and the State Department, but rather a careful distribution of roles vis-à-vis the policy of the Trump administration. It may be intended to give Washington space for maneuvering.
For this reason, it seems that the Palestinian leadership is willing to reformulate some ideas for a resolution and propose them at the summit in accordance with Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
Jordan, too, is set on reviving the Palestinian discussions with a positive, open and preemptive spirit in order to meet US initiatives halfway in the hope of achieving some practical and fair solutions.
Palestine is not ablaze like some Arab countries whose situation will be tackled at the summit — though likely with shackled hands due to the spread of terrorist groups, foreign agendas and the absence of an Arab strategy.
Libya may occupy a major space at the summit because the main parties there capable of reaching a solution happen to be Arab ones; the UN is ready to assist as soon as the major powers agree to cooperate.
The Yemen issue could also be open to breakthroughs at the summit. This depends, however, on whether Saudi Arabia is willing to bring it there in light of critical talks between the US and Saudi Arabia during the visit of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Washington recently.
Iraq will be present at the summit from the standpoint of the war on Daesh and the battle for Mosul.
Syria, too, will be discussed, mostly regarding the battle for Raqqa, a priority for the US; further discussion will be based on the Astana and Geneva talks led by Russia.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected to raise the issue of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Palestine and Lebanon in hopes of seeing the Arab Summit come up with a political vision for resolving the problems in those countries and also to ease the continuous blame thrown on the UN for its inability to solve them.
Two visible absentees from the summit will be US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
The dance between the two men has captivated the world. At the Arab Summit, the leaders’ decisions will not be decisive because Washington and Moscow are still courting — or repulsing — each other.
The Trump administration is still reeling from the president’s tweets and fierce media campaigns against him and his circle.
Russia is the focus of doubts, assumptions and speculations regarding the integrity of the Trump administration.
Some are suggesting that Trump’s associates are involved in suspicious deals with Putin and Russia. The matter has reached the point where the FBI is investigating Trump’s associates and their alleged ties to Russian and Ukrainian leaders.
It will not be easy for the summit to act based on US relations with Russia or with Iran, Israel and Turkey. There are nonetheless enough signals to help delegates make serious and pragmatic resolutions.
Most of those associates feigned ignorance when asked about their Russian connections, only to suddenly remember, when cornered legally, that they did have some ties. This of course raises suspicions of perjury.
The question is not only whether Trump has reasons to be afraid to criticize Putin, but also whether Putin himself miscalculated his moves in the US.
The Russians deny allegations that they meddled in the US elections, but they have not concealed Putin’s disdain for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and their preference for Trump.
The acrimonious history with Clinton is known and has important landmarks, including Libya and the Arab Spring, which Putin believes Clinton wanted to turn into a Russian Spring.
What is not known is the full history of cordial relations between Putin and Trump.
Some Russians saw Trump as the man who would bring down the US as Yeltsin did with the USSR.
Some say the opposite — claiming that Russia wants a new chapter of partnership with the US, and sees Trump as holding the key to it.
Americans are divided about Russia’s actions.
Some say the Russians played their cards skillfully and led America to division, doubts and investigations.
Others say that Russia made a grave mistake when it allowed itself to believe America could be blackmailed or its institutions sidelined, and that this will backfire on Russia.
The Congressional investigation of the Russian connection and the FBI’s involvement has certainly poured cold water on the rush toward warm relations between Trump and Putin.
This does not mean, however, an end to their courtship. Some are seeking to arrange a summit between the two leaders in Iceland before the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been criticized for planning to visit Moscow while he has decided to skip the NATO summit next month.
This reinforces the impression that Trump and his administration are intent on pushing forward with the rapprochement with Russia and Putin, unless investigations produce an outcome that threatens this.
There are some who believe that the intelligence, media and congressional campaigns against Trump make him a weak president incapable of striking a deal.
Others say that these would make him primed for the kind of deal Putin desires.
The US relationship with Russia and China clearly takes precedence over its relationship with its European and NATO allies, and this infuriates the Europeans with the exception of Britain which now has tied its fate to that of America. Middle Eastern countries are divided when it comes to the implications of US-Russian relations for them.
Turkey, which is furious with Germany, The Netherlands and other European countries, is reassured by the setbacks in US-European relations. This is despite the implications for NATO-member Turkey, especially if it is affected by the American demand that European states increase their financial contributions to NATO.
However, Turkey is dancing to the rhythm of US-Russian relations, and is confused and apprehensive about what lies in store.
Turkey will be ready at the Arab Summit through both the Syrian and Iraqi gateways, and also through the balance of US-Russian relations and of regional relations (Arab-Israeli-Iranian-Turkish).
Ankara has played many games in Syria, and now it is meeting Russian demands after Moscow appointed it as a guarantor of the cease-fire and accords there, including the demand to contain moderate rebels.
The Russian absentee from the summit will have such a tangible presence that he is almost a guest. Indeed, Putin dictated his agenda in the Middle East through strategic relations with Iran by forcing Turkey to perform a U-turn in his direction and by forging a solid relationship with Israel.
Russia is thus a key player in all Arab issues. So when the Arab Summit tackles the issue of Iraq and Syria, and even Yemen and Libya, Moscow will have an important seat, even if invisible, at the table.
Russia has other plans to guarantee influence and have a say in shaping the future of these countries.
The American absentee from the Dead Sea is new and unusual; some are astonished by the policies he has declared regarding Iran, while others fear his arbitrary decisions may prove costly.
The Trump administration seems to adapt itself, with the art of the deal as a policy in order to initiate bargains.
Now Trump’s top priority is to destroy Daesh in Raqqa and Mosul, and tackle Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
There is talk of Trump’s intention to adopt a policy similar to Gen. David Petraeus’ surge in Iraq, escalating military action before reaching deals in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
It will not be easy for the Arab Summit to act based on US relations with Russia or with Iran, Israel and Turkey, and thus reach major decisions. There are nonetheless enough signals to help them make serious and pragmatic resolutions.
• Raghida Dergham is columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the UN. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP — the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.