What will Trump mean for US ties with Israel’s peaceful Arab neighbors?
By Sean Savage/JNS.org
The incoming Donald Trump presidency likely means a sharp break from President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. For Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab countries that have peace treaties with Israel and two of the most reliable U.S. allies in the Middle East, the Trump administration will provide new opportunities and challenges going forward on issues such as Islamic extremism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the status of Jerusalem.
Oren Kessler, an expert on Egypt and deputy director for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think tank, said that despite Trump’s controversial statements on Muslim immigration to the U.S., he is surprisingly popular in Egypt, mainly due to the unpopularity of Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Clinton is seen [in Egypt] as a key player in an Obama administration that was too quick to abandon [former Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak, a longtime [U.S.] ally, when protests broke out against him in early 2011,” Kessler told JNS.org.
Kessler added that the Obama administration’s reputation in Egypt was also damaged by its “cozy ties” with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist political movement that is now designated as a terrorist organization in its home country. Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy, has called the Muslim Brotherhood “the most dangerous group promoting the totalitarian and Islamist supremacist doctrine of sharia” law, according to the Washington Times.
That "cozy" relationship meant that “scores of known radical Islamists made hundreds of visits to the Obama White House, meeting with top administration officials,” according to a 2012 report by the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
When he was the head of Egypt’s military, the current Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi led the effort to topple the regime of President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, in 2013. Obama invited Morsi, after he was newly elected, to the White House for a meeting.
By contrast, Obama has not invited El-Sisi to the White House, “a symbolic honor that Obama has notably denied the Egyptian president,” writes Michael Rubin, a foreign policy expert in the American Enterprise Institute’s website aei.org.
“Many Egyptians also view the [Obama] administration as having been too harsh in responding to the military’s removal of the Brotherhood, and subsequent crackdown, a response that included withholding some [U.S.] military aid and Apache helicopters at a time that an insurgency was raging at full flame in the Sinai,” Kessler said.
Adel Guindy—the former president of Coptic Solidarity, a U.S.-based human rights organization that promotes equality for Coptic Christians in Egypt—echoed Kessler’s assessment, arguing that much of the perception on Trump’s reputation in Egypt has been shaped by the “anti-Trump” American media, but that Clinton and Obama have far worse reputations in the Arab country.
As such, Guindy said that El-Sisi has not shied away from showing his preference for Trump, especially after their meeting last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where Trump told El-Sisi that “under a Trump administration, the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally, that Egypt can count on.” Notably, in November, El-Sisi was the first Arab leader to congratulate Trump on his election victory.
“In general, it seems that El-Sisi thinks he can do business with Trump, who as a pragmatic leader would dwell much less on ‘annoying’ issues such as democracy, freedoms and human rights, and focus more on down-to-earth stuff,” Guindy told JNS.org.
Since coming to power in June 2014, El-Sisi has waged a crackdown on Islamic extremism in Egypt, specifically targeting the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Islamic State-affiliated terror groups in the Sinai Peninsula. Additionally, last June, El-Sisi in a televised speech called for reforms within the Islamic religion to counter “fanaticism and extremism.”
Yet Guindy said El-Sisi has disappointed many Egyptian Christians due to his failure to fully combat Islamic terrorism. In mid-December, a bomb tore through Cairo’s main Coptic church during Mass, killing 25 people and wounding 49.
“The overwhelming majority of Copts strongly supported President El-Sisi and his efforts to stabilize Egypt through combating terrorism,” Guidy said. “However, their support has worn out as they have come to realize that their dhimmi-like situation (inferior status) under El-Sisi’s rule is actually no better, if not worse, than under Mubarak. Regimes come and go, but it seems that persecution of Copts is a quasi-permanent ideology of the Egyptian state.”
The reaction within Jordan to Trump’s victory was mixed. A strong U.S. ally, Jordan’s King Abdullah naturally congratulated Trump, expressing his “keenness to work with the new president to enhance bilateral relations and face various challenges, based on the strategic relations and common interests between Jordan and the U.S.”
Yet within the Jordanian government, there are different views of Trump depending on the issue at hand, said Dr. Abdullah Swalha, director of the Center for Israel Studies in Jordan (CIS).
“For example, Trump represents a historic break from U.S. policy towards the Middle East. His focus on defeating ISIS (Islamic State), the most significant threat to our region, would receive full support from our people,” Swalha told JNS.org.
“They think that Trump is ready to use all the power necessary to eliminate ISIS, and he will not waver in the war against it,” he added.
On the other hand, he said some Jordanians view Trump’s controversial comments on Muslims “as a gift to ISIS.”
“His anti-Muslim discourse helps ISIS recruit more fighters and win more sympathizers,” Swalha said.
Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is also concern among Jordanians that the Trump era will mean a more favorable U.S. approach to Israel that could alienate many in the Arab world. Swalha said Trump’s outspoken support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies, “especially settlements and holy sites,” could “put the [Jordanian] government in a very difficult position.”
Cairo, Jerusalem and Washington
Under El-Sisi, Egypt and Israel have grown closer as they grapple with mutual terrorism threats from the Sinai and Gaza. Yet the recent United Nations Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements challenged the positive tenor of Egyptian-Israeli ties, while also providing insight into Trump’s future role. The resolution was originally sponsored by Egypt, but the Egyptians withdrew it on the day of the vote, reportedly due to pressure from Trump and Israel. Other Security Council members renewed the resolution a day later and it passed 14-0, with the Obama administration declining to use U.S. veto power to block the measure.
FDD’s Kessler told JNS.org that he found Egypt’s sponsorship of the U.N. resolution “extremely bizarre” given the increasingly warm Israeli-Egyptian relations.
“Ties between Egypt and Israel are closer than ever before, as the Israelis provide crucial assistance to Egypt in securing the Sinai Peninsula and the border with Gaza. Diplomatically, Israel and its friends have encouraged Washington to be more invested in the relationship with Egypt,” Kessler said.
Kessler said the “only scenario” that makes sense to him is that “Egypt believed—or perhaps was told—that Washington wouldn’t wield its usual veto against anti-Israel Security Council resolutions, thereby allowing Cairo to push through this resolution and portray itself at home and around the Arab world as the champions of the Palestinians.”
Although Egypt’s involvement with the U.N. resolution may have been a setback for Egyptian-Israeli relations, many believe trilateral Israel-Egypt-U.S. ties will improve under Trump.
“Middle East analysts widely believe that the coming of the Trump era would mean that their relationship would grow even stronger, forming a sort of Washington-Cairo-Jerusalem alliance,” Kessler said.
Jordan and Jerusalem
The future of American-Jordanian relations may take a different route, especially if the U.S. goes ahead with plans to relocate its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs Mohammad Al Momani recently warned of “catastrophic” consequences if Trump moves the U.S. embassy, telling the Associated Press that Mideast countries would likely “think about different things and steps they should take in order to stop this from happening.”
Since Israel took control of the eastern half of Jerusalem, which includes the city’s holy sites such as the Temple Mount and Western Wall, in the 1967 Six-Day War, Jordan has been permitted to retain a special role in administering the Temple Mount as part of the Islamic Waqf (religious trust). King Abdullah has strongly advocated for maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount.
CIS’s Swalha said moving the embassy could be a “nightmare” for the Jordanian government and the Arab world.
“Nobody can predict what will happen if [Trump] did it,” he said. “It could end up being a third intifada (Palestinian violent uprising) and creating upheaval in most of the Arab world.”
Since Congress passed the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which calls on the U.S. to move the embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the holy city as Israel’s capital, every sitting president has opted to sign successive six-month waivers delaying the move. Obama signed the latest waiver in December, meaning Trump’s will need to decide June 1 between another waiver or an embassy move.
Swalha believes that once Trump takes office and speaks with U.S. allies in the region, he will eventually decide against the move.
“My view,” Swalha said, “is that he will not fulfill his promise [of relocating the embassy] due to domestic and international reasons.”