On the Middle East, Trump sounds like a statesman

This article appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

The Middle East is in upheaval. Its troubled present and future possibilities are not topics American leaders will be able to ignore.

The next president will be dealing with a more dangerous and unstable world as a direct result of this upheaval: Multiple hot and cold proxy wars between the two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran; the reemergence of Russia as a major player in the Middle East (something not seen since the heyday of the Soviet Union); and Islamic State group control of territory in three countries, Iraq, Syria and Libya.

The next president will be tested very quickly in the Middle East, whether by the Saudis, Israelis, Iranians, or Russians. These groups will be testing to see if the perceived loss of American credibility in the region was an Obama administration phenomenon, or whether it represents a sea-change in American attitudes toward overseas involvement.

In the Republican primaries, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are the leading candidates. In a partisan campaign, where President Barack Obama's alleged weakness and U.S. decline have been memes, it is not surprising to hear rejections of the Iran nuclear deal, charges of ineffectiveness in the war on the Islamic State group and dithering over Syria, and expressions of Islamophobia.

What is unexpected is neutrality on the question of Palestine and a refusal to fawn before the Israeli lobby. That, remarkably, is the position of the candidate who otherwise seems most unstatemanlike in a characteristically belligerent crowd (Gasp!): Donald Trump.

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When it comes to the hottest foreign policy issue in U.S. electoral politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Trump displays the sensitivities of a true statesman. He has raised eyebrows by espousing a more realistic and pragmatic approach than even former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

While recognizing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the "toughest negotiation anywhere in the world of any kind," Trump appears more detached about Israel and Palestine than all the other presidential candidates, Republican or Democrat, something particularly striking given that it is a standard operating procedure in a presidential campaign to vocalize positions that are markedly pro-Israel.

In fact, Trump was booed at the December 2015 summit of the Republican Jewish Coalition for refusing to take a position on moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He even had the cheek to tell the audience that most of them wouldn't be voting for him anyway since he didn't need their money, thereby offending any Jews who had thought of supporting him. Senators Cruz and Rubio and Governor John Kasich have all pledged to move the embassy.

At an MSNBC town hall meeting in South Carolina in February, Trump was asked whether Israelis or Palestinians could be blamed for the failure of peace talks. Trump refused to blame either side explaining that doing so could hurt his future ability to negotiate. "Let me be sort of a neutral guy. ... I don't want to say whose fault is it. I don't think it helps," he said.

Also in February, at the Republican presidential debate in Houston, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Trump how he could stay neutral regarding Israel, Washington's strongest ally in the Middle East. The New York real estate tycoon reaffirmed his support for Israel but also said that "I think it serves no purpose to say that you have a good guy and a bad guy. ... It doesn't help if I start saying, 'I am very pro-Israel. More than anybody on this stage.' But it doesn't do any good to start demeaning the neighbors."

Trump's insistence on neutrality can be explained by an instinctive reaction that if you are a mediator then you have to preserve a measure of credibility. Like him or dislike him, he sees himself as his own man, not dependent on funding, and he wants to portray himself as an ideal negotiator. He simply doesn't believe in undermining his position as mediator by adopting the position of one side over the other.

This position is different than his Republican rivals and in fact puts him closer to President Obama. Unlike his GOP rivals, Mr. Trump has also refrained from pledging to shred the Iran nuclear agreement and has stated his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq loud and clear.

One might write off Mr. Trump's studied neutrality on Israel and Palestine as an idiosyncracy. But taken together with his positions on the Iraq War and the Iran nuclear deal, it shows a surprising reserve and independence of judgment we would not have expected from the boorish, Know-Nothing candidate on the stump. Is there more there than he wanted his populist following to grasp? Will we see a different candidate in the general election? Can we afford to wait to find out?

Whoever becomes America's 45th president can afford neither to ignore the imploding Middle East nor attempt to separate the United States from its problems. Just ask the online Islamic State group recruiter who can cast his spell over troubled youth, whether in Marseille or Minneapolis.

[Jesuit Drew Christiansen is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University; Rafat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]


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