By M.R. Josse
GAITHERSBURG, MD: Penning this on the eve of Israel’s parliamentary elections, it is impossible not to take cognizance of some foreign policy initiatives by President Donald Trump that are likely to influence them.
While the outcome should be in the public domain before this column sees light of day, it may still be useful to mull over a few key decisions by the Trump administration against that backcloth.
THE TRUMP EFFECT
Deserving of such attention is Washington’s decision labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. This is an unprecedented move that is sure to further ratchet up pressure on the Iranian regime on the eve of Israel’s parliamentary elections.
Given the poisoned relationship between Israel and Iran, that determination will be heartily welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and right-wing allies of his Likud party. Others may perceive it as an intrusive gift to Netanyahu, now setting his eyes on a fifth term.
Since, as NPR reports, Iranian lawmakers have prepared legislation that would officially label the U.S. military itself as a terrorist group, Trump’s assertive measure will dangerously spike U. S. – Iran tensions. Incidentally, the polls are generally regarded as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, now tainted by the scandal of corruption.
Trump’s decision to quit the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, not long after he stepped into the Oval Office, not only bolstered relations between Israel and the United States but cemented a strong personal rapport between Trump and Netanyahu.
Another key action by Washington in the context of Israel/Middle East was the move shifting its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the disputed city claimed as capital by both the Israeli and Palestinian people. It, too, marked a break from decades of American
Finally, only last month, during a whirlwind pre-election visit by Netanyahu to Washington, President Trump publicly announced that his government recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights which Israel seized from Syria in 1967.
ISSUES AND BACKDROP
At the time of writing this, media reports indicate that Netanyahu’s Likud, together with a coalition of rightist parties, is likely to win, overtaking former army chief Benny Gantz’s Blue and White centre-left bloc.
What is the general background of the pre-election landscape? There has been a rash of corruption scandals, some involving Netanyahu; rockets rain in sporadically from Gaza, as the mess in Syria continues unabated, not to mention that Iran is apparently back in the nuclear game.
Note has been taken of Netanyahu’s startling public rhetoric: “We will go to the next phase. I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlements blocs and isolated settlement….From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli; and we have the responsibility as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”
Though such declarations may only be for campaign purposes, it has expectedly set a cat among the Palestinian pigeons. As much is obvious from Palestinian foreign minister Riad Malki reported response: “If Netanyahu ¬¬¬¬¬wants to declare Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, then you know he has to face a real problem, the presence of 4.5 million Palestinians, what to do with them.”
That said, as The Economist noted in its leading article the other day, “He is more intelligent and capable than many populists, and can claim plenty of successes. By shrinking the bloated state he has helped Israel’s economy flourish, especially its tech startups. With deft use of diplomacy and mostly cautious use of military force he has boosted security without being sucked into disastrous wars. Thanks to that and a shared hostility to Iran, relations with many Arab rulers are better than at any time in Israel’s history.”
US, UN, & CHINA
Geopolitical shifts are taking place on other fronts, too. One was highlighted by U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s attempt to build an anti-China campaign at the United Nations, as Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch makes out. What is ironical is that the U.S. which has largely ignored the world body is “suddenly concerned that Beijing has too much influence there.”
As Lynch explains, “the effort is part of a broader bid by the Trump administration to try to stall China’s rise as a global power, breaking with decades of United States’ diplomatic efforts to manage China’s inevitable rise as a responsible global competitor.”
Equally noteworthy is an AP story entitled ‘China’s construction binge spreads to the Americas, rattles U.S.’ The item, datelined Panama City, focuses on China’s expansion in Latin America of its Belt and Road Initiative to build ports and other trade-related facilities which is stirring alarm in Washington over her ambition in a region that American leaders, since the 19th century, have seen as off-limits to other powers. The news report reveals that China is now focusing on countries in Central America such as Panama, a country of just 4 million people. Its canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans makes it one of the world’s busiest trade arteries and strategically important both to Washington and Beijing.
Curiously, Trump has yet to announce a replacement to for American ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, who announced his retirement in January 2018. No wonder the news report concludes America is “leaving a vacuum of leadership that obviously the Chinese are trying to fill.” China is the canal’s second-largest user after the U.S.
Finally, there is a recent CNN report informing not only that for the second time this year Russian warships have been docking in the Philippines but that the two countries are planning to sign a naval agreement which will involve more joint training exercises and reciprocal port visits.
Furthermore, while Sino-Philippines tensions over conflicting claims on various portions of the South China Seas have “cooled” after Manila pursued closer economic relations with Beijing, she has also turned to Moscow for support with President Rodrigo Duterte shifting his country’s previously close ties with Washington.