The Palestinian priority is obvious for the Arab Summit convening in the Dead Sea, given the U.S. president’s readiness to retrieve the Palestinian-Israeli issue from oblivion, having slid down to the bottom of the Middle East’s priorities because of the preoccupation with the war on ISIS and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya and Iran’s regional ambitions.
The welcoming of renewed US interest in finding a resolution to the Palestinian Israeli conflict however is clashing with the US stances at the UN, which have fully endorsed Israel’s positions and protected them from criticism and accountability. This divergence at the UN is not limited to the Palestinian Israeli issue, but is also clear in the statements of the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on Russia and Iran, which have been confrontational, escalatory, and firm compared to the messages being sent by the White House. Yet this may not be dissonance among the White House, the UN ambassadorship, or the State Dept., but a careful distribution of roles in the policy of the Trump administration, to give Washington space to maneuver. For this reason, it seems that the Palestinian leadership is willing to reformulate some ideas for a resolution and propose them at the summit, as suggested by Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit. Jordan too is bent on reviving the Palestinian issue with a positive open and preemptive spirit to meet US initiatives halfway in the hope of achieving something practical and fair.
Palestine is not ablaze as are other Arab countries being tackled by the summit, likely with shackled hands due to the metastasis of terror 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 countries, while the UN is ready to assist as soon as the major powers agree to cooperate. The Yemeni issue could also be open to breakthroughs at the summit, but this depends on whether Saudi Arabia is willing to take the issue to the summit in light of critical talks between the US and Saudi during the visit of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Washington last week. Iraq will be present at the summit from the standpoint of the war on ISIS and the battle for Mosul. Syria too, from the standpoint of the battle for Raqqa, a priority for the US, and the Astana and Geneva talks led by Russia. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres will be carrying the dossiers of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Palestine, and Lebanon, hoping to see a political vision coming out of the Arab Summit for their resolution instead of continuing to blame the UN for its inability to resolve them. One of the most important absentees from the summit who will nonetheless cast a shadow is Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The tango between the two men has captivated the imaginations of Arab leaders, and the decisions at the Dead Sea will not be complete because Washington and Moscow are still courting – or repulsing – each other.
The Trump administration is still stumbling between the arbitrariness of the president’s tweets and the fierce media campaigns against him and his circle.
Russia is the focus of doubts, assumptions and speculations regarding the integrity of the Trump machine. Some are suggesting Trump associates are involved in suspicious deals with Putin and Russia. What is happening is extraordinary. The matter has reached to the point that the FBI is investigating Trump’s associates and their alleged ties to Russian and Ukrainian leaders. Most of these men obfuscated when asked about their Russian connections, only to suddenly remember when they were forced to legally, raising suspicions of perjury.
The question is not only whether Trump has reasons to be afraid to criticize Putin, but also whether Putin himself had miscalculated or well calculated 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 history of acrimony is known with Clinton and has important milestones, including Libya and the Arab Spring, which Putin believes Clinton wanted to turn into a Russian Spring. What is not known is the history of cordiality between Putin and Trump. Some Russians saw Trump as the man who will bring down the US as Yeltsin had done with the USSR. Some say the opposite, claiming that Russia wants a new page of partnership with the US and sees Trump as holding the keys.
Americans themselves are divided about Russia’s actions. Some say the Russians played their cards skillfully leading America to division, doubts, and investigations. Others say that Russia made a grave mistake when it allowed itself to believe America can be blackmailed or its institutions sidelined, stressing that this will backfire on Russia. Clearly, Congress’s investigation of the Russian connection and the FBI’s involvement has poured cold water on the rush to start a warm relation between Trump and Putin. This does not mean however an end to the courtship. Some are seeking to arrange a summit between the two leaders in Iceland before the G20 summit in Hamburg in July. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson has meanwhile been criticized for planning to visit Moscow, after he decided to skip the NATO summit next month. This reinforces the impression that Donald Trump and his administration are intent on pushing forward with rapprochement with Russia and Vladimir Putin. Unless the investigations produce an outcome that threatens this.
There is a view that that states the intelligence, media and congressional campaign against Trump makes him a weak president incapable of striking a deal. Some say for the dame reason that this would make him primed for the kind of deal Putin desires.
Clearly, the relationship with Russia and China has taken precedence over the relationship with the European and NATO allies, and this infuriates the Europeans except for Britain, which has tied its fate to that of America now.
The Middle East countries are divided with regard to evaluating the implications of US-Russian relations on them. Turkey, which is furious with Germany, the Netherlands, and other European countries, is reassured by the setbacks in US-European relations despite the implications for NATO member Turkey, especially if it will be affected by American demands for increasing 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 from the Syrian and Iraqi gateways, and also through the balance of US-Russian relations and regional relations (Arab-Israeli-Iranian-Turkish). Ankara has played many games in Syria, and now it is meeting Russian demands there, after Moscow appointed it as a guarantor of the ceasefire and accords there, including the demand of containing the moderate rebels.
The Russian absentee at the summit is so tangible in his presence he is almost a guest: Indeed, Vladimir Putin has dictated is agenda in the Middle East through strategic relations with Iran, and by forcing Turkey to u-turn in his direction, and by forging a solid relationship with Israel through the Syrian gateway.
Russia is thus a key player in all Arab issues. So when the Arab summit tackles the issues 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 a say in shaping the future of these countries, divided or contiguous.
The American absentee present at the Dead Sea is a new and unusual guest – some are astonished by suitable policies he has declared on Iran, while others fear his arbitrary decisions may prove costly. What the Trump administration is doing is to adapt with the art of the deal as a policy in order to initiate bargains. Now, his top priority is to destroy ISIS in Raqqa and Mosul, and tackle al-Qaeda in Yemen.
There is talk of Trump’s intention to adopt a policy similar to General Petraeus’s surge in Iraq, escalating militarily before a deal in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
This approach is different when applied to political issues, for example by raising the ceiling with China and Iran, either to conclude a deal or uphold red lines.
It will not be easy for the Arab summit to dissect US-Russian relations or with Iran, Israel, and Turkey to help make major decisions. But there are enough signals to make serious and pragmatic ones.