Thursday May 18, 2017
As US President Donald Trump starts his first foreign trip, he will make history by stepping into Saudi Arabia, Israel and then The Vatican. Many would ask why the American president opted to break away from the tradition set by American presidents before him who had always toyed with the idea of visiting Canada or Europe as the first leg of their tours.
Trump will no doubt hit the hotspot during a time of turmoil. Saudi Arabia is strengthening an anti-terror coalition at a time when Riyadh and Tehran are trading barbs. An arms deal worth billions of dollars is expected during his trip. The proposed weapons contracts include the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, which costs $1 billion. Saudi Arabia will be the second Gulf country after the UAE to have such an advanced defence mechanism.
This visit will clearly give Trump a chance to flex his muscles against a country that his predecessor befriended even though Iran was labelled as part of the axis of evil by Bush. A few eyebrows were raised when Trump included Iran in his executive order that banned travel to the US from a few Muslim countries. Trump has also hinted at breaking the “worst” 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which, he believes, shouldn’t have been signed. It’s ironic that Trump finds his hands tied as the move has been opposed by US businesses that are seeking to make inroads into the Iranian economy.
Eyes should also be focused on his Syria strategy as the US has failed to topple the regime despite enlisting the support of many Arab countries. It will be interesting to see how the Trump administration helps Saudi Arabia against the battle-hardened Houthis in a war that has increasingly become unpopular in Europe and the US due to extreme collateral damage. Saudi Arabia can rightly have high hopes from Trump as his actions have made him a better partner than Obama proved to be. The kingdom is right to expect Trump to reverse the controversial law that has allowed families of the 9/11 victims sue Saudi officials and seek billions in compensation. However, even if Trump promises to look into the issue, it will be little more than diplomatic juggling.
The next leg of the visit will land Trump in Tel Aviv at a time when the Israelis will be marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War that poisoned the Middle East forever and led to Israeli troops taking control of Jerusalem. Trump will arrive in the region when the so-called Arab Spring has sunk some of the arch enemies of Israel into oblivion. Even Hamas is coming to terms with the new realities and has offered a softer stance on the six-decade-old conflict by offering to accept the idea of a Palestinian state which would fall within the borders that existed in 1967. The resistance organisation knows that the Palestinian issue has already been put on the backburner as the media has zoomed in its lenses on the civil wars in Syria and Libya.
During his visit, Trump will hold talks with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. There is a ray of hope that this visit will mark the beginning of efforts to revive the stalled peace process, which was initiated by Bush only to fall prey to the Zionist agenda. But if Trump reiterates his controversial commitment to moving the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it will be tantamount to adding fuel to the fire. The former media mogul must know that the world wants to see him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Netanyahu and Abbas and announcing concrete steps to achieve perpetual peace. This will placate the Palestinians and act as a tranquiliser to Tel Aviv.
Over the years, Israel has tried in vain to develop ties with Muslim countries as it continued its expansionist agenda of terrorising the Palestinians. Around 12 years ago, Israel had publically extended its hand to Pakistan when the then foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri met his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom in Istanbul.
The mood on the both sides is better reflected, though, in a recent tweet by Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, in response to a fake news article involving nuclear threats to Pakistan by Israel. Khawaja Asif was quick to tweet: “Israeli [defence minister] threatens nuclear retaliation presuming [Pakistan’s] role in Syria against Daesh. Israel forgets Pakistan is a nuclear state too.’’
In the Vatican, President Trump will have an audience with Pope Francis. This meeting will also be remarkable because the two have been at odds on various issues, such as immigration and climate change. The Pope had once remarked that: “anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian“. Trump was quick to retaliate by saying that: “for a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful”.’
It will be strange if Trump avoids an unannounced visit to Afghanistan and Iraq before heading to Brussels to attend summit of an organisation that he had once termed “obsolete”: Nato. The businessman-cum-president is starting his trip after a long consultation with Henry Kissinger. The trophy of the tour could be the revival of the peace process in the Middle East. If Trump succeeds in capitalising on this opportunity, it will not only help him bring the estranged Europeans, Russians and Arabs onboard but also open the doors into the hearts of millions of Muslims who are frustrated by his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The writer is a senior journalist
associated with Geo News