The “normalisation” of relations of some Arab countries – the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan – with Israel was announced in August-October, on the eve of elections in the US and at a time Netanyahu was experiencing acute pressures at home due to the criminal charges against him for corruption. The normalisation was promoted by Trump who celebrated the event at the White House.
This major initiative has been realised with Saudi support, though the kingdom is not itself in the ranks of countries joining the normalisation process. Instead, what Trump and Netanyahu have achieved is the next-best: Israeli media reported that, on 22 November, Netanyahu and Pompeo met MBS at NEOM city, in Saudi Arabia.
Though all three persons are aware of Trump’s electoral defeat, they had their own reasons for going ahead with the meeting: Saudi Arabia and Israel want to project a united front against Iran to the Biden administration, seeking to pre-empt possible initiatives from the incoming government to open dialogue with Iran, reinstate the JCPOA, and perhaps move towards improving ties.
More immediately, while Netanyahu may wish to project himself as a great statesman and diplomat, petty politics is clearly part of the calculus for both MBS and the Israeli prime minister. In Israel, the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition is falling apart and the country is expected to lurch to a fourth round of elections, when Netanyahu will highlight his diplomatic achievements on behalf of Israel. MBS is possibly using the meeting to obtain the backing of the US rightwing and sections of the Israel lobby to ensure he has a smooth passage when Biden takes charge and human rights concerns relating to the kingdom don’t become a priority for the new administration.
Trump’s support base: the evangelists
Trump’s West Asia policies are largely influenced by the interests of the US’ Christian evangelist community. Said to number about 80 million in the country, this community is located across the US but is particularly prominent in certain states where their numbers can make a crucial difference to the electoral outcome. These states are: Florida: 2 million evangelists; Pennsylvania: 1.4 million; Michigan: 1 million, and Wisconsin: 0.6 million.
All these states were won by Trump in 2016 with margins as narrow as 11,000 in Michigan, 23,000 in Wisconsin, 46,000 in Pennsylvania, and 114,000 in Florida. Overall, in the 2016 elections, 79 percent of the evangelists voted for Trump, their support in crucial swing-states perhaps seeing him through to the White House in January 2017. In a poll in August 2020, 90 percent of evangelicals expressed satisfaction with Trump’s performance, as against Protestants 62 percent, Catholics 64 percent, and Jews 33 percent.
Evangelists have a long history of defining Protestant doctrine and belief in the US. Their core beliefs are being “born again” and the historicity and authority of the Bible. After the Second World War, the movement split between ‘fundamentalists’ who upheld the central beliefs of the faith and the modernists who sought accommodation with the contemporary world, including non-believers. The central figure in the latter movement was Billy Graham (1918-2018), while Jerry Falwell (1933-2007) was pastor, televangelist and conservative activist. Falwell’s Moral Majority movement had the slogan “Make America Great”, which Trump later appropriated and added “Again” to it.
Evangelist leaders traversed a long way from deep hostility to Jews to support for Israel. During the Nixon presidency, Billy Graham spoke of the Jewish “stranglehold” on the US that was taking the country “down the drain”. This was soon corrected as evangelists came to understand the place of Israel in realising the full flowering of their doctrine.
The doctrine provides that, once the Jewish State is established in the “Promised Land” and the Temple of Solomon, destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, is reconstructed, the Anti-Christ will emerge to destroy the temple. This will usher in a seven-year period of Tribulation, setting the stage for the “Second Coming” of Jesus Christ. All Jews will then either accept Christianity or perish violently. Jesus will then preside over 1000-year reign of perfect justice and happiness.
The main role in disseminating affiliation with Israel has been played by evangelists called “Christian Zionists” who support Israel, particularly its rightwing parties and militant leaders. Christian Zionists have been interpreting events in West Asia as fulfilling this Biblical prophecy: the Balfour Declaration, the setting up of the State of Israel, and Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, all these events are viewed as marking the progress of the prophecy.
Christian Zionists are now the “majority theology” among white American evangelicals: in a 2015 poll, 73 percent of them as said that events in Israel are prophesied in the ‘Book of Revelation’. For many Christian Zionists, Islam and Muslims are the hallmarks of the anti-Christ who should be forcibly removed from the “Promised Land”. In 2002, in an interview, Falwell described Prophet Mohammed as “a terrorist, a violent man, a man of war”.
Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, encouraged Bush to go to war on Iraq, seeing it as a “holy war on Islam”. Later, he told Obama to keep out Muslims from the US until “this war with radical Islam is over”. During his campaign, Trump frequently reflected these sentiments: in January 2016, he told students at the evangelical university: “We will defend Christianity from Islam.”
Throughout his presidency, Trump assiduously cultivated the evangelists, seeing them as crucial for his political survival: four out of six preachers at his inauguration in 2017 were evangelicals. He appointed prominent evangelists to high-profile positions – Mike Pence as Vice President and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.
In January 2020, Trump, who had been “pro-choice” over the previous 20 years, joined the “March for Life”, a pro-life movement, an important evangelist position. He gave open access to the White House to evangelist pastors – John Hagee and Robert Jeffries – who had considerable influence on him.
As Julian Borger, writing in The Guardian, has pointed out, the Bible-based views of Christian Zionists directly “colour [the administration’s] views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and indirectly, attitudes towards Iran, broader Middle East geopolitics and the primacy of protecting Christian minorities”. Theologians quoted by Borger see evangelical influence in the US’ total support for Netanyahu, indifference to Palestinian interests, and the general perception that “the US [is] locked into a holy war against the forces of evil who they see embodied in Iran”.
Pompeo has been very open about his beliefs. In Cairo, as he explained his government’s West Asia policy, he said he was in the region “as an evangelical Christian”, and then added that in his office: “I keep a Bible open at my desk to remind me of God and his work, and the truth.” Pompeo’s obsession with Iran is seen by some observers as resulting from his evangelical faith.
Pence, Pompeo and the evangelist pastors at the White House have influenced several of Trump’s policy decisions in West Asia. John Hagee has said that at a dinner at the White House in November 2017 he told Trump about God moving in 50-year cycles, starting with the Balfour Declaration and then the 1967 war. He then recommended: “This is the year to move the embassy, and it’s time to declare the declaration, because these are blessed days from the Bible.”
Later, Trump himself confirmed that the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem was fulfilling a commitment to the evangelicals; he said: “And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. It’s for the evangelists. You know what’s amazing about it: the evangelists are more excited about it than a Jewish people.” Trump seems unaware that the Christian “second coming” calls for the annihilation of the Jewish people!
Trump was not so much backed by the powerful “Israel lobby” as by powerful Jewish individuals, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Early in his last campaign, Trump had been neutral on the Israel-Palestine issue: he had questioned the need to arm Israel to the extent of billions of dollars; backed the two-state solution, and refused to commit on recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This changed when Adelson from the hard-right, with strong anti-Arab positions, entered the scene with several million dollars for the Trump campaign.
The outlook for West Asia
Trump’s approach towards West Asia has been defined by the absence of a vision, so that, as Steven Cook has written recently in Foreign Affairs, what we have seen is “the scattershot quality of his encounters with the region”. Many important decisions made by the president were impulsive, yielded some short-term advantage, or served the interests of dubious elements who had temporarily got the attention of the president. Was Trump “akin to a puppet or useful idiot for a series of foreign policy advisers”, as Oscar Rickett writes in Middle East Eye?
Overall, Trump leaves behind a very damaged West Asia: the confrontation with Iran has been without any broad strategic framework, with the sanctions and confrontations being directed at a hapless population with no end or purpose, while the regime – increasingly bitter and bellicose – remains firmly in place. In fact, under sustained pressure from the US, Iran is gradually tying its interests to new players in the region – Russia and China – whose presence in West Asia will transform the regional strategic landscape, to the US’ disadvantage.
Trump’s pampering of Netanyahu has not aided the prime minister in attaining his electoral interests, but the impulsive shift of the embassy to Jerusalem, approving the annexation of Golan Heights, and recognising Israeli settlements as legitimate, have undermined decades-old understandings of legal positions, while making it impossible to work credibly with the Palestinians towards a truce, if not a settlement.
Trump’s embrace of the Saudi crown prince has done little good for either side: the US has hardly got the defence orders and investment openings that the president had been so openly salivating over, while, absent any US constraint, the kingdom has sunk into a harsh tyranny, with a global image for intolerance and cruelty. And, for the US president, the war in Yemen has not been the humanitarian disaster that it is, but only an opportunity for greater sales of weaponry. Amidst this carnage, the GCC, the one functioning institution for regional cooperation, lies mortally damaged and is unlikely to recover.
Whether the president had planned it or not, West Asia today is a tinderbox that could enflame due to a thoughtless act or a misunderstanding of the intentions of the other confronting you.
As Biden prepares to enter the White House, he is already deluged with advice about what his first actions should be. This is largely on account of the wounds Trump has inflicted, both at home and abroad. West Asia looms large in these advisories, particularly in relation to the nuclear agreement with Iran and the re-building of ties with that country.
The new president’s first priority will be to repair the damage at home – fighting the pandemic and reviving the economy. And then, working on relations with allies and China, both mortally wounded by the outgoing presidency. But West Asia will still demand urgent attention because the security scenario is fragile as too many wounds are festering and too many fronts provide openings for conflict.
One grave danger that Biden and his team will need to avoid is the situation the US had found itself in about two years ago, described by Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes in Foreign Affairs as “a kind of Middle East purgatory – too distracted by regional crises to pivot to other global priorities but not invested enough to move the region in a better direction”.
The present-day problems in West Asia are inter-connected, with regional and extra-regional nations involved in diverse conflicts across the landscape. Thus, what is required is not an Iran policy, a Saudi policy, or an Israel policy, but a cohesive approach that understands the links between them. Finally, what West Asia needs is a cooperative security arrangement that, incrementally, moves from confidence-building measures to bilateral dialogue that then leads to a regionwide conclave. This is the challenge before the new administration.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat who has served as ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, among other States. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.