President Donald Trump recently made a trip to the Middle East, with stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine, where he met with top officials and visited sacred spaces. His visit to Israel included a visit to Jerusalem, where he announced his personal commitment to achieving a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.
We discussed Trump’s Middle East visit — and what it means symbolically and politically — with Amb. (Ret.) Daniel C. Kurtzer, lecturer and S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Kurtzer served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001 and as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005.
Q. What is your reaction to Trump’s visit to parts of the Middle East?
Kurtzer: President Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine has left behind little substance beyond soaring rhetoric on themes played out by his predecessors for years: terrorism, Iran and Middle East peace. The optics of the trip were positive, with Trump visiting holy sites and launching new activities, such as a counter-terrorism finance center in Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh. Regional leaders went out of their way to play to the president's ego, and they succeeded in eliciting from him strong affirmations of support. However, unless there are private commitments or understandings that are being kept under wraps, this visit produced few "deliverables" or fundamental changes on the ground.
Q. How was President Trump received during his visit to the Middle East?
Kurtzer: Trump received a regal welcome in Saudi Arabia and returned the kindness by heaping praise on the beauty of a country best known for its deserts and barren landscape. Trump went out of his way to avoid raising anything controversial, such as the Saudis' abysmal human rights record, discriminatory treatment of women, or the autocratic nature of the regime itself. While blasting Iran for its aggressive regional activities and support of terrorism, Trump appeared unaware of the irony of Iran's just having gone through a free and democratic election. In so doing, Trump signaled clearly that the long tradition of American concern about the state of democratic governance and respect for basic political rights is on hold during this administration.
Trump achieved rapport with the Saudis and the Sunni Muslim and Arab leaders convened in Riyadh by King Salman by focusing on the Iranian threat. It was music to the ears of his audience. Trump tried to use the theme of a common enemy to draw the leaders into an alliance against terrorists, as defined by the United States. Trump made it easy for those in attendance to play along, for he gave a pass to their regimes and focused on the “loser” terrorists themselves. No serious actionable outcomes were announced, however, despite speculation before Trump’s visit that there might be agreement to form an “Arab NATO.”
Trump’s visit to Israel, equally successful in terms of oratory and good feelings, was marked by the usual theatrics of Israel’s fractious democracy. This included a member of Knesset, Israel’s parliament, maneuvering Trump into position on the receiving line in order to take a selfie; over-concentration on the question of whether Melania refused to hold her husband’s hand; a comment by Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was caught on the microphone, that the two leadership couples share a dislike of the media; or the White House statement noting Trump’s interest in achieving a Middle East peach (sic). Trump’s visit to the Western Wall, the first by a sitting U.S. president, was appreciated but also the subject of some right-wing Israeli rancor, as he declined to be accompanied by Benjamin Netanyahu.
Q. Did any news break during the visit? Were any important announcements made?
Kurtzer: Trump and his accompanying delegation of officials and business leaders were able to announce several hundred billion dollars of U.S.-Saudi contracts, the centerpiece being about $110 billion in Saudi arms purchases from the United States. Trump announced these deals to the gathered Arab and Muslim leaders, noting how this would create jobs in the United States and Saudi Arabia — apparently oblivious to the reality that more than half of the assembled Arab and Muslim leaders preside over countries mired in poverty.
Q. In your view, what are the biggest takeaways from the visit?
Kurtzer: Trump almost got beyond two issues that had produced hiccups in the run-up to his visit, but not quite. His reported handover to the Russians of sensitive intelligence provided by Israel might not have figured at all had Trump himself not been heard telling Netanyahu that he never said the word “Israel” to the Russians. And various administration officials seemed unable to figure out how to refer to the Western Wall without embroiling themselves in the toxic issue of whether to say that it was located in Israel or the West Bank. Trump also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City (and many will thus excuse his mispronunciation of the Church’s name during his speech on Tuesday); and he made the obligatory visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, albeit for less than a half hour.
In between the symbolic aspects of his visit, Trump met with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to advance the prospects of what Trump has called the “ultimate [peace] deal.” All Trump would say in his speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is that both leaders seemed ready to reach out for peace; and he alluded to the possibility that Arab states might step up more actively to support peace efforts. But there was nothing else to suggest that he had brought any new ideas or left behind any homework for the parties to do. Only time will tell whether Trump’s silence on the peace issue reflected the absence of anything to report or the recognition of the need for quiet diplomacy.
Perhaps the most important takeaways from Trump’s travels in the Middle East is that he can carry out a reasonably well-prepared itinerary and can stay on message publicly when reading prepared speeches from a teleprompter. Given his penchant for Twitter and public outbursts, he would be well-advised to apply these Middle East lessons at home as well.
WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.