Misdirection is the way of magic and conmanship. Control people’s attention and lead them on a merry dance. Have them hand over their wallets or change your clothes in front of a roomful of people without anyone noticing.
It works just as well in politics. Uncomfortable with the public narrative? Don’t answer the question; change the topic; resort to the passive voice or just bomb somewhere (aka, diversionary war theory).
As Donald Trump embarks on his first foreign trip – reportedly with some reluctance – his entire short tenure as president is beginning to look like one giant diversion, a misdirection so big you find yourself looking everywhere to find out what the “real” story is and checking for that wallet.
Is Trump a master manipulator of the media? Perhaps. But when the 45th US president touches down in the Saudi capital Riyadh for the first leg of a trip that will see him also visit Jerusalem, the Vatican and Brussels – where NATO officials are preparing talking points tailored to a short attention span – it might be worth paying attention to some of the other things that could happen in the fog of pageantry, arms deals and the cloud of accusations swirling around Trump that in the last week alone include obstructing justice and leaking sensitive intelligence to Russia.
Gulf warms to Israel?
During his two-day Saudi visit – which promises to be a grand affair that includes meetings with more than 50 Arab and Muslim leaders and a concert with country singer Toby Keith – Trump will hold talks with the Gulf Cooperation Council.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal this week, Gulf countries are ready to step up their normalization of ties with Israel.
Already, reports suggest, there is widespread sharing of intelligence. Now some Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, want to expand this to include lifting restrictions on some trade, establishing direct telecommunication links and granting overflight rights to Israeli aircraft.
Common enmity toward Iran is the basis of this burgeoning relationship, an enmity that now appears to be stronger than any sense of solidarity with Palestinians, so long the stated reason Arab countries shunned Israel.
Indeed, mindful of any possible public backlash, The Wall Street Journal reported that Gulf countries want Israel to offer a “peace overture” to the Palestinians in return: an easing of the siege on Gaza and an end to settlement construction in “certain areas” of the occupied West Bank.
It’s a far cry from the already highly conciliatory 2002 Saudi peace initiative that offered comprehensive peace but in return for an end to the occupation of all territory seized in 1967, the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and a “just solution” to the “Palestinian refugee problem.”
That still remains the official position of the Palestine Liberation Organization, most recently iterated by Husam Zomlot, the newly appointed PLO ambassador in Washington. So these latest Saudi overtures might also have been expected to raise the hackles of Palestinian diplomats.
Instead, however, Zomlot responded with a fudge even Trump might have been proud of.
“We don’t mind a good relationship between Israel and the Arab world,” he told the Journal. “[But] is this the entry to peace? Or is it the blocker?”
Trump has been careful to be seen to work his way down a list of campaign promises, from his border wall to health insurance reform.
One of these – even though it doesn’t appear to have been listed on senior advisor Steve Bannon’s whiteboard – was to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
For now, that promise seems to have been dropped as Trump eyes a new peace initiatve to deliver “the ultimate deal” – an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
Bringing Peace in the Middle East™ will certainly offer Trump a welcome distraction from his domestic travails – a grand form of misdirection.
The only problem is it’s not going to happen. Israeli and Gulf leaders may see Trump as a “breath of fresh air” but that is partly because they see him as unwilling or unable to change a status quo that suits all concerned.
Saudi Arabia sees an opportunity to position itself as the main power broker in the region and to this end is happy to glad-hand Washington by openly warming relations with Israel. Riyadh gains and Tel Aviv gains.
Pliant Palestinian Authority
Israel will only slow its settlement building when warnings from Israeli observers that this puts the country firmly on the “slippery slope to some sort of one-entity reality” become inescapable conclusions.
But that will only happen absent the pliable Palestinian Authority, which is still clinging to an existence that has lost its raison d’etre.
There is certainly no viable domestic Israeli opposition to a coalition government wedded to the settlement project, and with even Arab opposition dropping away this is too big an opportunity for the settlement lobby.
Beyond continued funding for the Palestinian Authority, there is nothing on offer for Palestinians. A freeze on settlement construction “in certain areas” and an “easing” of the Gaza blockade, as per the reported Gulf offer, means precisely nothing, or, perhaps more accurately, whatever you want it to.
It will do little for Palestinians in Gaza, who for more than a decade have been suffocating under an Israeli-imposed siege and repeated military offensives that have left nearly two million people there on the brink of disaster.
If Trump is looking to Palestinians and Israelis to provide some respite from the domestic chaos of his administration he is likely to be disappointed.
Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.