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Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to Egypt, Jordan and Israel exemplifies how much the Trump administration has changed America’s Middle East policy in its first year. Initiatives to destroy the ISIS caliphate and combat international terrorism, reverse the misguided Obama administration policies on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its pursuit of regional hegemony, and launch new efforts on the Arab-Israeli peace process all emerged in 2017. Considerable difficulties remain on all these fronts, but Pence has underscored the administration’s commitment in what will concededly be a long, hard slog.
The vice president’s first stop, in Cairo, focused on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Pence reaffirmed U.S. support for a two-state solution, assuming the parties could agree. The media stressed that Pence was trying to tamp down concerns about Trump’s decisions recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and withholding significant funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides assistance to Palestinians. The reality was likely somewhat different, especially given earlier reports that Egypt is swiftly adjusting to Trump’s new policies.
The Jerusalem embassy move is irreversible (which Pence reinforced in his subsequent speech to Israel’s Knesset), and it recognizes the fundamental political reality upon which secure and lasting peace depends. Just before the vice president’s trip, the State Department announced it will upgrade a consular facility (which already resembles an embassy chancery) in Jerusalem, reopening it as our embassy in 2019.
Pence also likely explained that the UNRWA decision represents not just budget bean-counting, but a fundamental reappraisal of UNRWA itself, with a view to ending U.N. support of hereditary refugee status for Palestinians. As for the viability of a two-state solution, the Palestinian Authority itself is rapidly burying whatever shred of credibility that idea still retains.
Moreover, Washington cannot ignore that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi has allowed Russia a military presence in Egypt unprecedented since the 1970s, when then-President Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet military advisors and turned Egypt toward the West, thereby laying the groundwork for the Camp David peace agreement. Putin and Sisi have exchanged official visits (Putin most recently to Cairo in December 2017), and Egypt now allows Russia’s air force significant access to Egyptian aviation facilities.
These incursions by Moscow, coupled with construction of an air base in Latakia, Syria, during the Obama administration and the Russian State Duma’s recent decision to expand the nearby Tartus naval station, are strategic decisions reflecting Moscow’s determination to shape the Middle East to its liking. Washington and its allies do not need more Russian adventurism in the region, especially given the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis.
Perhaps Sisi (and other U.S. friends like Saudi Arabia, which has also signed arms deals with Russia) are simply hedging their bets against U.S. fecklessness, amply demonstrated during Obama’s presidency. Nonetheless, the White House should insist its friends behave like friends and reject Putin’s blandishments. So doing would recognize the geopolitical reality that Russia is aligned with Iran, whose interests and aspirations directly conflict with Egypt and the Sunni Arab world more broadly.
In Jordan, the vice president faced a reprise of the Jerusalem embassy issue. In fact, King Abdullah II should be preparing himself for a larger role in the West Bank. Before the 1967 war, Jordan had no hesitation asserting sovereignty over West Bank territory from Britain’s former Palestinian mandate, territory conquered by Jordan’s Arab Legion during the 1948 to 1949 war with Israel.
Once it becomes clear the two-state solution is finally dead, Jordan should again be asked to exercise control over suitably delineated portions of the West Bank and have the monarchy’s religious role for holy sites like the Temple Mount reaffirmed. Accepting Jordan’s sovereignty would actually benefit Palestinians, as would Egyptian sovereignty over Gaza, by tying these areas into viable, functioning states, not to the illusion of “Palestine.”
Pence’s visit with American troops near Syria underlined the continuing Syrian conflict in the aftermath of destroying ISIS’s physical caliphate, and the increased threat posed by Iranian troops and Shia militia linking up with Assad’s forces and the Hezbollah terrorists. This is a truly pressing problem undoubtedly weighing heavily on Abdullah’s always-overstressed kingdom.
In Israel, Pence’s last stop, the existential issue remains Iran’s nuclear-weapons threat, complicated by North Korea’s rapid progress toward achieving a delivery capability for thermonuclear warheads that would almost certainly be available to the ayatollahs for the right price. Most immediately, the vice president and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the chance to consult on the urgent need to encourage and assist (publicly or behind the scenes) Iran’s opposition, whose recent demonstrations threatened the very existence of the Tehran regime.
The recent revelation of yet another secret Obama administration deal with Iran, with additional unilateral American concessions, pledged Washington not to sanction the International Republic of Iran Broadcasting (“IRIB”), Tehran’s state monopoly of broadcast radio and television. Reached within the framework of the Intelsat telecommunications treaty, this agreement should either be abrogated or ignored, as allowing Iran’s opposition to communicate more effectively across Iran, and limiting IRIB’s pro-regime propaganda would be powerful tools to weaken the ayatollahs further.
The United States and Israel must also avoid the latest snare set by the Europeans, who are desperately seeking to prevent the Trump administration from doing what Trump has repeatedly said he wants to do, namely exiting the failed Iranian nuclear deal. An American-European “working group,” announced while Pence was in Israel, is the latest idea, as if anything will at this point persuade Iran (backed by Russia and China) to give up any concessions won from Obama.
Instead, the working group will divert attention from the intense allied consultations that should be underway, namely on increasing the pressure on Tehran once Washington formally withdraws from the deal in May. Israel, of course, will welcome the withdrawal, but there must be diplomatic preparation both for such an announcement and the West’s follow-up actions that will make clear that denuclearization is Iran’s only way forward.
Throughout his trip, Vice President Pence proved adept at navigating the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, while also providing a reassuring contrast to the ongoing obstructionism in Congress over keeping the U.S. government operating. It would not be surprising to see Pence taking a larger international role in advocating Trump administration foreign policies on the international stage.
John R. Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as undersecretary for arms control and international security affairs at the U.S. Department of State under President George W. Bush. He is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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