There has been no better time in recent history where Russia-U.S. bilateral relations are positioned best to leverage their coordinated influence on the divided sectarian and tribalistic theatre in the Middle East to broker a negotiated resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been holding the center of the world in limbo for the last 70 years.
President Trump has assembled an unprecedented team from outside the political realm to take on this longstanding dilemma. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis will embolden their respective Departments to proceed from a position of strength, it is Senior Advisor Jared Kushner who will preside over the art of the deal in the ancient struggle.
Many have surmised how the 36-year old inexperienced Kushner could have an inkling of a chance to strike a covenant when skillful powerhouses under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations, some with good intent and some below their pay grade, failed to reach a final agreement between Israel and their neighbors. That’s just it! Most pundits misjudged a Trump presidency so why not resume with a narrative of glum and minimal expectations only to realize Kushner has over delivered to those on the wrong side of history yet again.
First, it is clear in the early weeks of the Trump regime that it is no longer political business as usual. The approach will not and cannot be the same course as past endeavours to peace. Rather, a hybrid all-inclusive regional methodology from a position of coordinated Russian – American strength by hawking a concise and aggressive slant where the affected countries reach a negotiated pact with some benefits, is better than an ever-imposing resolution with fewer gains for those that remain as holdouts.
The Middle East players will quickly discover the Trump-Putin era brings forth new innovative processes that are far different from the antagonistic and politically inept team that Obama fielded. Gone are the days where the UN bullies pass disproportionate numbers of resolutions against the only democracy in the Middle East or where photo-op handshakes at Camp David result in numerous Israeli concessions for peace and the Palestinian Authority unwillingness to recognize the right of the Jewish State to exist. Gone are the days where France and its EU stalwarts lead a “Peace Conference”, a nation that has itself been battered by Islamic terror attacks and now plays as the acting agent for the same goons who caused blood to flow on the streets of Paris and Nice.
President Putin’s rise as the world’s most powerful man in 2016 and now co-broker alongside the President Trump was a direct result of Obama’s failed Russian reset. Obama set the stage early in his first term when he chose to pull the plug on Bush’s American missile defense from Poland and Czechoslovakia in a conciliatory effort to gain Putin’s support on Iran’s nuclear program at the expense of American close ties with Israel. With little to fear on the Russian western European flank, Putin recognized the feeble American resolute crumble under Obama – a requirement to thrust forward on their political and military ambitions.
Putin euchred Obama by snatching the Crimean strategic tongue lapping the Black Sea after the U.S. and the West laid their cards down in supporting the removal of a democratically elected pro-Russian regime in Ukraine. Next came Putin’s rise in the Middle East when Obama failed to uphold the line in the sand in the Syrian civil war. The Russians now hold a strategic foothold as the main power broker in Syria following a decisive win against the American-backed rebels.
The absence of a solid U.S foreign policy doctrine as a counterbalance to the Russian offensive strategy diminished the fear of American military reprisal and was understood as a sign of weakness to the Putin-type bravado leaders who only respond to those who project positions of strength.
Dealing Donald Trump must now produce with the wily Vladimir Putin as an equal partner in the Middle East. Trump has indicated during his campaign and after becoming President that he hopes to get along with Russia, stating “that would be a good thing for America.” Trump’s praise for Putin’s operational skills as he marched towards his election victory was a political win for the Russian President as well.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has expressed the desire to normalize relations with the U.S. "Following the difficult relations we had under Barack Obama, President Putin is ready to meet in the interests of global security and stability. We share the position expressed by President Trump for re-establishing normal relations. This means we need to work in a business-like way." Business-like is Trump’s language in setting up the art of the deal.
Following Obama’s diplomatic spat where he expelled Russian diplomats in his waning days, Trump will be first up to bat in creating trust with Putin. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer did just that when he revealed that the U.S. would be open to working with Russia in its mission against ISIS and reverse his predecessor's policy toward Syria.
Russia and the US, while at odds in the balance of global power, now have a perfect opportunity to move the world forward on a common thread of mutual respect and beneficial national security. In short, they can and will eliminate ISIS and place the debacle in Syria, the attachment of Crimea, and the removal of economic sanctions against Russia in the rear-view mirror. There will be some give and take here but in the end, Trump will have built trust with Putin that allows them to move past these achievements or bygones and onto the next stage in the Middle East process.
While Kushner works directly with Israel and the Palestinians to engage in a 2-state solution, they will be apprised that Russia and America are moving through the backchannels on an alternative 3-state solution if the bilateral result is not forthcoming. This forces the parties to engage and compromise, and subsequently put more pressure on the Palestinians if they seek to remain an autonomous state. It must also be made clear that Jerusalem will remain as the sole capital of Israel as no city can become the capital of two sovereign states. Essentially, the Jewish capital in Jerusalem will cost Ukraine any hope of regaining Crimea.
The next step, which if leveraged with strong intent, will see America exert pressure on Saudi Arabia and Putin grinding the corners in Iran; the two opposing regional powers funding proxy conflicts that clash with their inherent tribal bloodlines. If the world cannot get past these two entities finding common ground like Russia and U.S., then any Middle East peace effort will not filter downward and throughout the Arab world. They need to understand their well-being and stability hinges on getting behind the plan, both politically and financially in terms of funding Egypt and Jordan in absorbing the West Bank and Gaza respectfully.
In the business-like matter, these side-bar discussions are much the same as senior executives of major corporations and multiple labor union presidents negotiating a contract. One must understand that the parties will each take back the positives and benefits in the contract that demonstrates they are working on behalf of their constituents trying to reach a deal that all can live with. The outlining countries or benefactors of the regional powers will look for gains as well. For the most part, they will fall in line. Syria and Iraq, which may have postured in the past, are in no position to create demands other than surviving as a country. We have got them while they are down. The Gulf States simply fall in line to preserve their well-being.
Iran will be the hardest nut to crack. If Russia walks away with a less threatening NATO, the removal of sanctions over Ukraine and increased oil revenues, President Putin may just figure it all out. He can go down in history with this global legacy. The one question for President Trump will be whether he can persuade Russia to turn away from Iran and cooperate with U.S. policy to counter Iranian aggression in the region. It is important to determine what the limits of Russia’s willingness to work together regarding Iran are. Those conversations must take place. Secretary of State Tillerson, who is known to have gained much respect from Putin through his days with Exxon, will be the man to lead such a discussion.
Putin must decide if he really seeks to become an ideal partner in defeating Radical Islam, then Iran must be defeated in its current state that permits sponsored terrorism and a road map to a nuclear weapon that is as much a threat to Moscow as a hemisphere away in Washington.
Just as Obama’s Russian playbook scrapped the missile defense deployment in Eastern Europe in hopes of greater Russian cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program, it is now Trump showcasing a new playbook that offers a great deal in return for in as much as reversal to Obama’s America’s foreign policy on Iran. In the end, Russia may come out with a double or nothing win where America barely breaks even through two American presidents. There may be too much on the table for Russia to walk away but it might also be too much for Trump to venture against Putin who could stick it to Trump as he did to Obama. That said, Trump must champion American fortitude in the resurgence of America’s military might and a willingness to use it without equivocation.
What assurances does America have that Russia will cooperate? None. But what does the U.S. lose that it hasn’t already lost? Crimea, Syria, Iran’s nuclear track and influence in the Middle East. What does America have to gain? Resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a mitigated Iranian nuclear threat and a turning point where the world moves on to the next era in civilization. As Trump says, “Dream big, think big, and go big.” Just when many in the world have become most skeptical and fearful of Trump, it may be just what the world needs.
As for the crux of the matter, Israelis are ready to move on and make a deal. Palestinians, too, seek a better life for their families, if it were not for the intimidation, threats, and hatred from the hardliners. With the right amount of leverage on Iran that cuts off funding to the extremists, strong marketing that sells the benefits of a better life ahead, and isolating the radical tyrants; the Palestinian people might just discover their voice that has gone unheard for decades.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Russian International Affairs Council.