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Grave Dangers: Richard Falk and Lawrence Davidson on Trump’s Middle East Policies

Trump’s attitude toward Middle East issues indicates that his policies are likely to intensify conflict in the area.

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Now that Donald Trump has signaled that the US no longer sees the creation of a Palestinian state as a crucial component of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, the future of US diplomacy in the Middle East is in turmoil. According to international law and international relations scholar Richard Falk, “Trump’s casual public comments exhibited no substantive grasp of the situation, and thus when he indicated his abandonment of a two-state consensus, it is best interpreted as reflecting Israel’s preferred outcome.”

Meanwhile, in a February 15 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump also continued to disparage Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, raising questions, referring to it as a “danger.”

In this interview, Richard Falk and historian Lawrence Davidson, whose research has focused on the history of US foreign relations with the Middle East, discuss the ramifications of the Trump presidency in regards to Middle East affairs, the Palestinian people and the American embassy in Israel, as well as the meaning of the coming of Trump foreign policies across the world in regards to Iran, Russia and potential NATO expansion.

Daniel Falcone: What does the election of Trump mean for the Palestinians? Do you see a spike in aggression and settlement expansion?

Richard Falk: Trump’s election is generally bad news…. In international policy, one can imagine that if Trump were foolish enough to go ahead with his pledge to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it would be widely experienced throughout the Islamic world as a provocation. Among its unintended consequences might be a new surge of Palestinian resistance, a renewal of active Arab support for Palestinian self-determination, further de-legitimation of Israeli settlement expansion and its various efforts to transform Jerusalem into a Jewish city, a more militant [boycott, divestment and sanctions] BDS campaign around the world, and added pressure at the UN to censure its expansionist defiance of international law, and even to consider the imposition of sanctions.

Lawrence Davidson: Trump’s election means that you have a US government that will no longer do one thing and say another. With the exception of Obama’s belated lame-duck behavior, the US has always, in practice, supported Israel unquestionably. At the same time, you had a diplomatic position taken that Israeli expansion was counterproductive because it got in the way of a “peace process” that had, in truth, long been meaningless.

[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, in his rather undiplomatic way, demanded that Washington bring words and actions together into a coherent, 100 percent pro-Israeli policy. Obama, apparently still having faith in a “two-state solution,” refused to do this.

Trump, on the other hand, has very little understanding of the historical nuances of the conflict. Also, he has no sympathy with underdogs. They, including the Palestinians, are just “losers.” So he will bring words and action together as Netanyahu wishes. Under Trump, the US will give its blessing to Israeli imperialism and racism.

President Trump stated numerous times over the course of his campaign that the Iran nuclear deal framework of 2015 was “the worst deal in history.” Conjecture without content became common in regards to the intense criticism of all things President Obama. What do you suppose is the potential impact on the deal with the present administration?

Falk: There are reports that Israeli intelligence officials have communicated to the Trump transition team that they hope that the Iran Nuclear Agreement will not be undermined because of its probable detrimental impact on Israeli security. If Trump were to go ahead with a renewed policy of hostility toward Iran, it would immediately raise tensions, and could quickly escalate in the direction of war, with grave dangers of producing another Syrian tragedy of massive displacement and prolonged strife that could cause turmoil and disruptions throughout the entire region, and give rise to a new cycle of extremism.

It could also ruin any prospects for a collaborative approach to the region that joined the United States with Russia and Turkey in peacekeeping efforts, initially to achieve a sustained cease-fire in Syria, followed by an agreed political process. I can only hope that Trump comes to realize the grave dangers of adopting a policy of confrontation toward Iran. Among these dangers is the likelihood that hardliners would again gain the upper hand in the governing process in Tehran, and the moderates who have sought to end national and regional tensions would be marginalized, or worse.

Davidson: Trump often acts in delusional ways. I think he is a man who has always made his own rules and gotten away with it. Enough money will do that for you. However, he has also gotten away with it because he has operated in limited contexts — mostly in the realm of business. Well, “he isn’t in Kansas anymore” (the allusion is to the Wizard of Oz). He is in a much rougher neighborhood, and consequences of acting in his usual egocentric, “I make the rules,” way can be quite dangerous for all of us.

Specifically in reference to Iran, he will not be able to renegotiate the nuclear arms pact. His attempt to do so will alienate all the European powers involved and will cost a number of US companies some very lucrative contracts. It is a losing proposition for him and for the US. Much more so than for Iran, who will turn more and more to Russia and China as trading partners. The question is: Will Trump’s ego allow him to reconsider any negative moves that he now might have in mind? Such reconsideration is really out of character for him. And, of course, the Israelis will be right there whispering in his ear, urging him to go jump off of this particular cliff.

For the Democratic elite and US government elected officials like Charles Schumer, how fragile is the nuclear deal, considering its skepticism is bipartisan? For instance, if lobbyists pressure politicians regardless of party, based on contributions, is it likely to be reversed?

Falk: It is difficult to assess how much of the skepticism about the Iran nuclear deal was rhetoric, and how much represents real policy goals. There is little doubt that if Netanyahu strongly signals a demand for scrapping the agreement, and confronting Iran and resuming a policy of threatening attack, Trump, with the support of most Democrats, will feel strong pressure to deliver on his earlier denunciation of the agreement, and be faced with many adverse consequences almost certain to follow. The whole diplomatic context is extremely fragile. It should be appreciated that if the arrangement on Iran’s nuclear program collapses after being so patiently negotiated, and successfully implemented since 2014 despite the intense opposition of Netanyahu’s Israel and its American loyalists in Congress, it would be widely perceived around the world as a huge setback in the search for regional stability and the struggle to prevent any further spread of nuclear weapons.

It should also be remembered that this agreement was a multilateral arrangement between Iran and the P5 +1. That is, the agreement was a joint effort of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, and not merely a bilateral arrangement between the US and Iran. If the US government irresponsibly undermines the agreement, it will badly damage relations with both its European allies and its main geopolitical rivals, as well as undermine confidence in diplomatic alternatives to war in the Middle East.

Davidson: Trump might well choose to renege on US obligations (so much for the sanctity of contracts!) and no doubt he would have the agreement of Zionist politicians like Schumer. But the consequences will be the increased isolation of the US — particularly from Europe, whose businesses will just move into Iran while US companies will lose out.

There is a dangerous aspect to all of this, however. Trump’s tendency is to rub shoulders with dictators. We have seen this with his attitude toward Russia and also toward the present dictatorship in Egypt. He might start to cozy up to the Gulf dictators as a way of trying to scare the Iranians. This could lead to a naval confrontation in the Persian Gulf.

President Trump also seems very anxious to forge a heightened relationship with Israel and tolerant of the extreme rhetoric of Benjamin Netanyahu and his reactionary statesmanship. If this eventually leads to undermining Iran, will that pose problems for Trump, who is trying to appear pro-Russian and pro-Putin? Would it lead to inevitable North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion?

Falk: Yes, Trump will have to take up juggling if he goes ahead and scraps the agreement with Iran and at the same time, seeks to avoid alienating Russia, and quite possibly France and Germany. These European countries are already nervous about what the Trump presidency means with respect to the future of the post-World War II international order that has essentially kept the peace on the continent since 1945. This order is far from perfect, of course, and under pressure from other sources, especially due to the rise of chauvinism and European Trumpism. Nevertheless, Europe has survived decades of Cold War tensions without experiencing yet another major war, this one quite possibly fought with nuclear weapons.

In light of Trump’s irresponsible behavior, even Putin may decide that it was time to recalculate Russian interests. This could happen quite quickly if Trump goes ahead and wrecks one of the few potentially stabilizing developments in the Middle East during the last several years. Similarly, if Israel joins NATO, this might be more than Putin is willing to swallow.

Davidson: I think Trump’s affinity for Netanyahu is part of the fact that he is most comfortable with fellow bullies. He is setting up a worldwide club of ruling bullies.

If Trump takes an aggressive anti-Iranian stand, I suspect it will complicate his relations with Russia; how much so, depends on what else Trump does, particularly about participation in NATO. If he shows signs of backing out of Europe, the Russians might be willing to stay out of his confrontation with Iran. If he follows Obama’s program in Europe, things might be different.

My guess is that Trump will begin withdrawing troops from Europe at a slow pace. He will demand a renovation of the Iran Accord and get nowhere with this. There might be more US sanctions on Iran. However, as I mentioned, the Iranians will not compromise with Trump, and barring a naval confrontation in the Persian Gulf, it will be US businesses that will suffer and Trump’s frustration level that will go up.

It was reported that David Friedman, Trump’s appointed ambassador to Israel, will work from Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, even before the embassy switches locations. Can you comment on the symbolism and pending dangers of such a hostile, crude and flagrant act?

Falk: Moving the embassy will be dangerously provocative to the Palestinians and to the region generally. It would confirm the worst impressions that America under Trump has become a rogue state posing catastrophic risks not only in the Middle East, but elsewhere as well.

I am quite confident that there are numerous discussions going in various “deep states” throughout the world about how to contain Trump’s America geopolitically and economically, given the early indications that his policies will intensify conflict in many parts of the world. It is possible that these worries are overblown and misdirected — that, in fact, Trump’s call for “America First” (despite evoking unpleasant recollections that such a phrase was the invention of those in the 1930s harboring fascist sympathies) and a positive relationship with Russia, might lead [to] a more relaxed global setting. We should not rule out the possibility that Trump’s diplomacy could deescalate Middle East strife and international tensions, give the US a lower global profile and enable a more balanced world order to emerge, doing most of its damage here at home, through moves to implement his vision of nativist nationalism.

My own sense is that if David Friedman chooses to live in Jerusalem, and quietly conduct diplomatic business from the now existing US consulate in the city, it will not be noticed very much. It will not be treated as a rupture with the past unless it is accompanied by other American encouragements of Israeli extremism undertaken with the clear backing of the White House.

In this regard, any move by Israel to end the conflict with the Palestinians by unilateral moves — such as annexing the West Bank, delinking Gaza and declaring that there be no further diplomatic process — will lead to strong regional and global reactions, as well as intensify efforts at the UN and in civil society to brand Israel as an outlaw state dangerous to regional and world peace and guilty of criminal behavior. Already there exists a growing international concern that Israel has become “an apartheid state” pursuing policies manifesting a “settler colonial” mentality. Such perceptions pose a challenge to postcolonial international society that will not be indefinitely ignored, especially if Palestinians achieve greater unity and tactical focus.

Davidson: Friedman owns property in Israel, including an apartment in Jerusalem. According to reports, that is where he will live and work.

There are also reports that the embassy move is on a relatively slow track. The Zionists aren’t pushing for it strongly because there are other bilateral issues that have higher priority, in particular, a green light for the annexation of settlements. Such a green light would be the backdrop justification for Trump to carry through with the embassy move.

If the Americans do move the embassy to Jerusalem, and eventually the rest of the world follows suit, it will mark the end of Palestinian hopes for a two-state solution.

Lastly, can you comment on the February 15 Netanyahu and Trump meeting at the White House? What was the significance of this meeting?

Falk: The significance of this meeting was mainly a matter of style and tone, an exhibition of the US enlarged deference to the wishes of Israel when it comes to the fate of the Palestinians. Trump’s casual public comments exhibited no substantive grasp of the situation, and thus when he indicated his abandonment of a two-state consensus, it is best interpreted as reflecting Israel’s preferred outcome. [He added] that as long as the parties agreed it didn’t matter to him whether it was one state or two states so long as it ended the conflict.

Since Israel would rather re-experience Masada [last stand in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome] than renounce the core Zionist objective of establishing a Jewish state, the only one-state “solution” on the horizon of realistic possibilities is an Israeli “one state” that fulfills the messianic nationalist ideal embraced by deep Zionism, likely consisting of completing the expansionist process of recent years by incorporating all or most of the West Bank (already spoken of inside Israel by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria), casting Gaza adrift, consolidating control over Jerusalem, and transferring as many West Bank Palestinians as possible to Jordan.