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Lame duck Trump
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 11 - 2018

While Republicans and Democrats continue fighting over the final result of the Senate mid-term elections, with all eyes on the recount process in Florida in which a Republican was declared the winner, the failure of US President Donald Trump's party to maintain a majority in the House is likely to put pressure on the president to alter some aspects of his hardline Middle East policy.
Democrats are expected to raise questions about Trump's escalation in the confrontation with Iran, full-fledged support for the right-wing Israeli government, the war in Yemen and close ties with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, especially following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Democrats were already critical of Trump's decision to unilaterally pull out from the Iran nuclear deal, which was seen as one of the key achievements of former Democratic President Barack Obama. Trump's Iran policy alienated many of his key European allies who were part of the deal, namely France and Germany as well as the United Kingdom. The European nations said they were already working on strategies to maintain trade relations with Iran, and to overcome the new round of US sanctions. Thus, Trump has already lost one of the main reasons why tight sanctions worked against Iran in the past: that they gained the support of all key US partners in Europe, along with Russia and China.
Imposing a second round of tougher sanctions against Tehran on 4 November, only two days before congressional mid-term elections took place, and threats to bring down Iran's oil exports to near zero by senior US administration officials, implied the direction Trump planned to follow in the next two years. It remains to be seen whether the new political scene in Washington will push Trump towards slowing down his open confrontation with Tehran, especially when the Democrats were expected to raise other explosive domestic issues, such as the president's tax returns, his special relationship with Russia, and the hush money he paid to silence porn actresses he allegedly wooed before becoming US president.
Another question following the outcome of the congressional elections is whether Trump intends to continue pushing his so-called “deal of the century”, or plan to revive peace talks between Palestine and Israel, based on proposals that are extremely biased towards Israel's vision of “peace”. Trump has adopted an extremely hardline policy towards Palestinians since he took office two years ago. The US administration is packed with strong supporters of the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, starting with Vice President Mike Pence, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, National Security Adviser John Bolton and the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman who was an active member of US-based Zionist organisations that funded illegal settlement activities in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The result of this conservative, pro-Israel combo was a series of decisions that altered US policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since former US president Bill Clinton hosted the signing of the Oslo Accords in Washington in 1993 between late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Not only did Trump recognise occupied Jerusalem as Israel's capital, disregarding strong Palestinian, Arab and Muslim claims over the disputed city, but he also stopped US funding for the UN agency, UNRWA, that has been providing basic education and health needs to millions of Palestinian refugees residing in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, closed down the US Consulate in East Jerusalem that overlooked relations with the Palestinian Authority, and ordered the closure of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) office in Washington. Trump dubbed his policy towards Palestinian rights as that of “taking issues off the table”. However, for Palestinians, if all final status issues are taken off the table there will simply be nothing left to negotiate, and their aspired independent state will be meaningless.
The presence of some new blood in the House, including new members of Arab and Muslim background, might be able to slow down slightly the drive of the most anti-Palestinian US administration in recent years.
US support for Israel has been partly a function of domestic politics, but there are growing constituencies, including liberal American Jewish organisations, that call for an even-handed US policy that recognises that Palestinians also have basic rights.
The new political scene in the US following the recent congressional elections is also expected to influence one of the cornerstones of Trump's Middle East policy since taking office in January 2017: his strong support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (known as MbS).
Trump's senior Middle East adviser, Kushner, has built a strong personal relationship with the Saudi crown prince, and Washington has been counting on Riyadh's support for its hardline policy towards Iran, to buy unprecedented amounts of American weapons worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and to promote its Middle East peace plan, or “deal of the century”. Kushner's ties with MbS have clearly helped in softening Saudi Arabia's stance towards Israel, even going as far as receiving in Riyadh a delegation of Evangelical Christian leaders, headed by Joel Rosenberg who is dual US-Israeli citizen residing in Israel, on 1 November. Close Saudi allies in the Arab Gulf region, namely the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, also openly received Israeli delegations at sports events, as well other conferences. Oman, another close US ally, received Netanyahu in a rare visit two weeks ago.
However, following the assassination of Khashoggi on 2 October, and Riyadh's admission that senior Saudi security officials were involved, the tide seems to be turning in terms of close relations between the Trump administration and MbS. As soon as the new House and Senate meet, pressure is likely to increase on the Trump administration to reconsider ties with Saudi Arabia, both in terms of holding top officials— including possibly MbS — accountable for the horrific killing of Khashoggi, and to stop the nearly four-year-old Saudi war against Yemen.
The Saudi war in Yemen, with US support, has resulted in one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters, in terms of civilian losses as well as the spread of famine and cholera.
Analysts also expect the new House and Senate to bring more pressure on close US allies in the Middle East region on issues related to respect of human rights, which has not been a top priority for the Trump administration. Several outspoken human rights advocates managed to win seats in the House, and that's not likely to be good news for Trump or some of his close Middle East allies.
What's not in doubt is that the new Congress, starting in January 2019, will launch investigations against Trump for several alleged legal violations, and he will be a lame duck president until the 2020 presidential elections. In that case, Trump will be fighting for his political life and will have precious little time for Iran, searching for Israeli-Palestinian peace, confronting Russian expansion in the region, or providing much needed support to his Saudi partners.

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