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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Jerusalem embassy move risks burning Trump's bridges with Arab allies, former US defence secretary says

Francois Hollande also tells Dubai Strategy Forum of threat posed by returning foreign Isil fighters

Former French president François Hollande and former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates speak during a debate at the Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai. Courtesy: Arab Strategy Forum
Former French president François Hollande and former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates speak during a debate at the Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai. Courtesy: Arab Strategy Forum

Donald Trump's decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem risks burning the bridges he has built with Arab allies since taking office, according to a former American defence secretary.

Dr Robert Gates said he was worried the president's move "has created problems for our Arab friends and allies".

“It hurts broader strategy in two ways,” Dr Gates, who served under George W Bush and Barack Obama, told the Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai on Tuesday.

“There was a general sense that this administration was devoting additional time and energy to try to bring about a solution that the last several presidents tried, but failed.

“It makes it much, much harder but I also worry that the announcement has created problems for our Arab friends and allies.

“One of the achievements of the Trump Administration has been to significantly improve the relationship between the US and Arabs, especially here in the Gulf, as well as Israel.

"Those relationships were deeply affected by Obama’s agreement to the nuclear deal with Iran and while this announcement won’t reverse that, it makes the political lives of our friends out here more complicated and difficult, especially in dealing with the emotions of their own populations.”

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Dr Gates's comments came after Arab foreign ministers on Sunday called on Trump to rescind the embassy decision, warning it could plunge the region into "more chaos, violence, bloodshed and instability" at an emergency meeting of the Arab League.

Also on Sunday, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said it could "throw a lifeline to terrorists and armed groups", while Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, described it as a "gift to radicals".

Also speaking at the forum on Tuesday was former French president Francois Hollande, which said the issue would loom large over diplomatic talks and alliances in the coming year.

“It will be subject to all the debates, especially at the United Nations, and it will provoke certain protests and trouble in 2018, in many countries where populations are in solidarity with the Palestinian State,” he said.

“But there will be no serious evolution in the case next year, firstly because the Israeli government is moving further away from a two-state solution, and because Palestinians are themselves divided.

"And it is very difficult for the Palestinian Authority [to bring up] the question of negotiations again.”

Following the failed terrorist attack on a bus station in New York yesterday, Mr Hollande said he feared attempted atrocities will only continue.

“Although weakened and eradicated in Syria, those terrorists want to target large capitals and cities,” he said.

“Their capacity to carry out terrorist attacks in countries like France is largely compromised, but the possibility of certain individuals, whether isolated or not, to carry out attacks could lead to a lot of damage and should be seen as possible anywhere.”

Former ISIL fighters fleeing the battle grounds of Syria and Iraq pose a challenge to security services.

“We need to follow those that leave Iraq and Syria and go back to their home countries, whether Russia, Europe or Arab countries and pay attention to their behaviour, especially those in rehabilitation and deradicalisation centres,” he added.

“We need to take some cyber security measures, always be vigilant and deploy all of our capacity to defend our countries.”

Dr Gates went on to say that lone wolf or small cell terrorist attacks will "will achieve their purpose of terror, but the opportunity for an organisation like Isis to create weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) has been dramatically reduced by the destruction of the caliphate".

“We should be realistic that the elimination of terrorism is not an achievable objective."

He went on to say that Iran is expected to continue creating regional tensions, especially vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia.

“We’ll see an intensification of the contest between Shia Islam led by Iran and Sunni Islam led by Saudi,” Dr Gates said.

“We’ve seen an intensification over the past year through surrogates such as in Yemen and we’ll see more of that in 2018. Iran is emboldened by its success in Syria and you’ll see an increasingly assertive Iran in terms of its interference and meddling in the region.”

“You’ll also see a growing probability of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, feeling empowered from their success in Syria, greatly strengthened by weapons and training from Iran, and Israel will see Hezbollah as an increasingly difficult problem that they’ll need to deal with in some point.”

Dr Gates said concluded by saying that "Trump reminds me of Nixon, without the deep background in international affairs, more as a personality".

“He will still be president a year from now, but the US will remain divided and to a large extent paralysed with a somewhat uncertain foreign policy," he said.

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