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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Jerusalem embassy move to 'kick up a lot of dust' but Trump needs to reach out to Palestinians, former Bush adviser says

Stephen Hadley said Middle East peace deal would mean a broader reconciliation for Israel with the Arab world

Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to then President George W Bush, said the UAE was one of the countries in the Middle East that was responding to the demands of their people and improving healthcase, and education. Antonie Robertson / The National
Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to then President George W Bush, said the UAE was one of the countries in the Middle East that was responding to the demands of their people and improving healthcase, and education. Antonie Robertson / The National

It is business as usual at the Emirates Palace hotel. In the cavernous golden lobby, a small army of workers is putting the finishing touches to a colossal Christmas tree, while guests sip on their Dh60 cappuccinos. From the auditorium downstairs come the faint notes of an orchestra rehearsing for tonight’s Abu Dhabi Classics concert.

Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to then President George W Bush, settles into a plus-sized silk cushioned armchair and considers the world immediately beyond these gilded walls.

It is not a pretty sight. In a matter of hours, President Trump is to make the potentially incendiary decision to relocate the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. If Iraq now only smoulders, then Syria continues to burn.

Yemen is still reeling from the murder of former President Saleh by his former Houthi allies, while this week’s GCC meeting shows divisions over Qatar are still far from healing.

Hadley, though, now 70 and with a lifetime of service in foreign affairs, appears surprisingly optimistic, although he would probably say realistic. He is visiting the capital as the guest speaker at a conference on international development, timed, as it happens with the latest Trump announcement.

What will happen tomorrow – and beyond? “We don’t know,” he admits. “There'll be a lot of hype, there'll be a lot of justifiable concern."

He suggested Trump should hold to the traditional American presidents’ view that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people but also acknowledge that the city would serve as the capital two states in the future.

Jerusalem cannot house any foreign embassies, according to Resolution 478 from the UN Security Council.

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Read more:

Trump's Jerusalem embassy move: latest updates

US officials: Trump will recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and start process to move Embassy

National Editorial: Legitimising Israeli occupation of Jerusalem will destroy all prospects of peace

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“The issue about the status and boundaries of Jerusalem, particularly of whether it is going to be the shared capital of two states for two peoples, is an issue for final status negotiations,” he said.

“The timing on actually moving the real estate - well that'll depend on construction and developments. And all he would be basically saying is what everybody already knows, that Israel's parliament is in Jerusalem, its prime minister sits in Jerusalem. Its ministers have offices in Jerusalem.”

His former boss, President Bush, neatly side-stepped the Jerusalem embassy issue by simply putting off a decision until his second term of office ran out. There is a sense, talking to Hadley, that if his does not promote President Trumps decision, nor does he outright condemn it.

With one important caveat, though. “I think there'll be a lot of concern because the administration has not laid out their Middle East proposal, so there is no context for it. And I hope that the administration will understand that and place it in the way that I have just described”.

While he thinks the initial announcement will “kick up a lot of dust initially” he believes that many governments in the region, “Don’t want to make it into a big issue - but then they have to show solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

His hope is, “After the initial response, people will take a deep breath, particularly if the administration is making progress on the framework for some kind of resolution. And by resolution, I mean an Israeli Palestinian peace embedded in a broad reconciliation between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.”

His views on the wider Middle East were set out almost exactly a year ago, in a proposed strategy for the region crafted with Madeline Albright, President Clinton’s secretary of state and published by the Atlantic Council, an American international affairs think tank,

To summarise, it proposes a tough response to the threat of terrorism and ISIL, while encouraging and supporting regimes seen as reformist, to create a climate of peace and stability. It does not see a massive injection of US dollars as a solution, nor the sort of military invention seen in Iraq, but still places America in an active role in both areas.

Looking back a year, he says, “A lot of the things that we talked about have come true. One was the bottom up process, that there were young people, a lot of them women, who were starting businesses, who were starting civic organisations, who were dealing with their own problems.

“And that there were governments that are trying to reform, trying to respond to the demands of their people for better education, better jobs, better healthcare, bringing their economies in their countries into the 21st century.

The UAE was one of those countries identified as being in the forefront of that movement. “Now it looks like Saudi Arabia is moving in that direction, with Vision 2030 and the leadership that the Crown Prince (Sheikh Mohammed) and the King (Salman) have given.”

On terrorism, “We've made great progress. That is to say that the moderate countries of the region have made great progress against terror. ISIL is now completely out of Iraq and will soon be defeated in Syria, and the caliphate is no more.”

With Iraq, he believes it would be fatal error for the US to say job done, and end its active military support of the government. “I think the United States is going to have to leave a significant military force there; somewhere between ten to twenty thousand after ISIL is defeated."

While Iraq is now settling down, he believes, “They have hard decisions to make about how they are going to move forward as three communities, Sunni, Shia and Kurds in a unified Iraq.”

The role of the American government, he says, is to allow this to happen without interference from Iran. Something similar holds true for Syria, where even here Hadley sees some light on the horizon.

“For the first time we’ve got some ceasefire zones, we have some diplomatic activity. Maybe we will actually get a path forward that begins to wind down the civil war in Syria.

At the same time, “If there is a peace arrangement in Syria, it has got to be one that does not legitimise or consolidate Iranian control. We should have been doing a lot of things in Syria that we are not doing and that would have put us in a much better position than we are now.

“But without looking back, we are where we are, and we need to do all we can to try to stabilise that country in a way that keeps it independent and does not again basically turns it over to the Iranians.”

It is clear that Hadley feels the Obama administration made major errors in its dealings with Tehran, and he feels sympathy for the Trump administration’s decision to refuse to ratify the international deal Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The Obama approach, “Meant we were not addressing Iran's development of ballistic missiles that would allow it to deliver nuclear weapons, its support for terror, for Hezbollah and its destabilising of the neighbourhood from Iraq, to Syria, to Lebanon, Yemen and some extent Bahrain.

“Those issues need to be addressed and the Trump administration came in saying ‘you know we need an effort together to address those issues about Iran'.”

The intention of the White House and Congress, he believes is, “About how to use the issue of sanctions to incentive our allies to work with us, to get Iran to extend the limits of the nuclear agreement, provide for greater inspections, put some limits on its ballistic missile programme, and begin to constrain and dial back some of its destabilising activity in the region.”

Central to US policy is its warm relationship with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The announcement this week of a new political, economic, and military decree to bind the two country’s closer together, does not surprise him,

“I think they've always been close together. I think Mohammed bin Salman took inspiration for his Vision 2030 from the UAE's vision 2021. So I think they've always been close and of course they've been close together on Yemen, and they've been close together on what to do about Qatar, so I think it’s making visual, or concrete, what we've always known all along.”

This developing relationship, though should not side-line the GCC. “The hope that I have, which is also the hope that has been expressed by the Trump administration, is that Qatar will come back into the fold of being a responsible player dealing with the issue of terrorism, dealing with the issue of Iran.

“I think that there is a great need for the Gulf states to deepen their cooperation in intelligence, in counter terrorism and in defence co-operation, things like missile defence, And I think that is still on the agenda, certainly that it is still the preferred alternative for Saudi Arabia and the UAE”

On Yemen, Hadley believes the UAE and Saudi approach is widely misunderstood by the international community. “What do you do when rebel forces in a neighbouring country are shelling your cities and your towns? You can’t ignore that.

“This is not just some sort ideological effort by the Saudis and the Emiratis to check the Iranians. This is to deal with a real national security threat. The missiles that come out of Yemen are directed at Saudi towns and cities.”

Both Saudi and the UAE seek a political solution, he feels, “but a political solution that does not have the Houthis taking over the whole country or essentially Iran taking over the whole country. The killing of former President Saleh, he suspects, shows that, “At this point the Houthis don't seem to be ready to come to the table in a realistic way. And the death of Saleh is going to make the situation even more difficult.”

It strikes a pessimistic note on what has been generally a surprisingly positive conversation.

“Well, Mike Hayden, the former director of the CIA, tells his audiences that this is the difference between intelligence officers and policy people," he begins.

“The intelligence officer will tell you that the glass officer is half empty, and it is leaking. The policy person will tell you, no, no, that glass is half full and I have got a strategy to fix the leak, and fill the glass the rest of the way up.

“So you know if you’re policy person, your job is to deal with the situation as it is, and to find the way forward to make it better. And I think there are some ways forward - but they will be hard to achieve.”