Finley: Can Trump deliver Middle East peace?

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

It may seem incongruous that a guy who has so bitterly divided Americans might be the one who brings together the most longstanding enemies on earth. But President Donald Trump is well positioned to pull off that unlikely piece of work — if a whole lot of stars line up. And if he does, it will be with an inadvertent assist from former President Barack Obama.

Trump visited last week with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas as part of a Middle East visit, his first overseas venture as president.

“This was a trip that was heavy on symbols and relationship building,” says Dennis Ross, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel. “It was not heavy in anything that suggested a specific set of deliverables.”

Still, Ross says, the opening for a deal, though narrow, is wider than it has been.

The reason: The Arab states see aiding a settlement as a means to court a more certain relationship with the United States. And Israel, having fretted through eight years of Obama’s coolness, wants to close the gap with America.

“This trip that was doomed to succeed,” Ross says. “It was in Trump’s interest to prove he could perform well on the world stage. And it was in Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s interest to show they’re building a relationship with him. Their big fear is that we might withdraw from the region.”

Saudi Arabia, where Trump also stopped, specifically fears Iran, which, thanks to the nuclear deal it negotiated with Obama is growing in influence in the region.

“The Saudi part of the trip suggested a mending of the fences, that, in the aftermath of Obama, needed to be mended,” says Ross, who served under every president from Ronald Reagan to Obama. “The Saudis viewed Obama as retreating from U.S. responsibilities in the region.”

Ross, whom I talked with ahead of his Tuesday night speech to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, says Trump’s goal on this trip was to demonstrate he understands the threat Iran presents.

That threat, as well as ISIS in Syria, has moved Israel and Saudi Arabia for the first time to cooperation below the radar on intelligence gathering and security operations.

“That gives you something to work with that you didn’t have before,” he says. “Can you take advantage of that shared threat perception and parlay it into a further peace movement?”

Ross says Arabs are “very hopeful” about Trump, who they see as Americans do: the polar opposite of Obama.

“Obama looked at Iran and said if we can change behaviors, we can change the region,” he says. “The Sunni states didn’t share that view. Look at the language Trump used in talking about Iran. We never heard Obama use that language in his second term.”

Will that translate into regional cooperation on a resolution of the ancient Israeli/Palestinian rift?

“There’s a level of enthusiasm for Trump in the region. And among the Arab states there’s an appetite to settle this. Historically, they have not pressured the Palestinians. They could do it now to keep the U.S. engaged in the region,” Ross says.

At home, Trump has pushed Americans into hateful camps that seem ready to explode. How ironic if he could bring similar factions together in the Middle East.

Nolan Finley’s book, “Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice,” is available from Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.