Haim Koren: Israel and the Palestinians in the Time of Trump

Ambassador Haim Koren

There is a chance of some progress towards peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the era of President Trump’s administration because of the coalition of convenience between Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates that has come together in the past few years, according to former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Haim Koren. But Ambassador Koren told a dinner meeting of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on March 7th that the window for progress will not remain open for long, before it gets overwhelmed by other events in the troubled Middle East.

Koren also said that despite the hostile stance of the current government of Iran towards Israel, “Iran is not a natural enemy of Israel - we don’t have a common border, and we used to be very close [under the Shah’s regime]”. But the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini changed everything, poisoning the relationship both with Israel and with many of the Sunni Arab states in the region. Koren said that even if intellectually he doesn’t think it likely that Iran would try to destroy Israel as they have sometimes threatened, “as a son of a Holocaust survivor, to hear I must be destroyed doesn’t sit well with me - even if they don’t mean it, I have to take it seriously.”

Ironically it is the resulting shared anxiety about Iran that has brought together some of the Sunni states with Israel to jointly confront the dangers of Iranian expansionism. Mobilizing this coalition to persuade the Palestinians to talk peace with the Israelis, said Koren, is analogous to the suggestions emanating from the Trump administration of an “outside-in” strategy to have friendly Arab states put pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate.

“It’s true the Palestinians know us better than anyone else in the region. The leaders need to come out and state that they want peace. I am optimistic for peace. They also would like to live in their own state peacefully in the region. Maybe we can come to a new understanding.”

Koren said that Israel appreciates all US Presidents, as the US is their closest ally. As for President Trump, he said “I’m not sure he himself knows what his policy is yet but he’s only been in office for a month. I hope he will do what’s good for America first of all and if it serves the Middle East then wonderful.”

But Koren said the need for a strong American role in the Middle East would continue, both to manage relations between the Arabs and the Israelis, and to restrain the Iranians. And what is more, Koren said, the US is needed to counter-balance the growing Russian role in the region. “The Russians were prepared to be cruel enough to make the Syrians think they could trust them.” By throwing in their lot with the Assad regime, and by extension Assad’s allies in Tehran, the Russians have won themselves a seat at the table in the Middle East which they did not have before. It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will fashion its Middle Eastern policy, beyond the stated goal of defeating ISIS.