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We're entering into 'unprecedented territory' in Middle East: Ex-DOD official

  • "Despite all the chaos right now, we still may get a problem which is coming in seemingly from left field," says Michael Rubin.
  • He believe the clashes in Gaza are about more than the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem.
  • "We're entering into unprecedented territory and to simply look at it through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian problem would be distracting," Rubin says.

There are a lot of things in flux in the Middle East, which could lead to a problem the Trump administration may not even see coming, former Pentagon official Michael Rubin told CNBC on Monday.

Earlier in the day, the United States opened its embassy in Jerusalem while protests in Gaza turned deadly.

"We're entering into unprecedented territory and to simply look at it through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian problem would be distracting," said Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

"If you look back at the Arab Spring, that had everything to do with every single issue which wasn't the Arab-Israeli conflict," he added, referring to the event that spread throughout the Middle East and saw the toppling of dictators in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover from Israeli fire and tear gas during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa | Reuters
Palestinian demonstrators run for cover from Israeli fire and tear gas during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018.

More than 50 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli forces on Monday. It was the highest Palestinian single-day death toll since a series of protests dubbed the "Great March of Return" began at the border with Israel on March 30 and since a 2014 Gaza war.

Meanwhile, Israeli leaders and a U.S. delegation including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and President Donald Trump's daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, opened the embassy in Jerusalem, relocated from Tel Aviv.

Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia told CNBC earlier Monday that moving the embassy will make the Middle East a more dangerous place.

"It's not a step that will bring peace to Palestine or the Middle East," he said.

The United Nations says the status of Jerusalem — captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war — can only be resolved by negotiations. Palestinians want the city as their own capital.

Rubin said the embassy move provides a reason to protest, but believes there is much more to it than that.

For one, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is in his 80s and hasn't appointed a successor, Rubin said.

"The Palestinian clashes, especially from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, have a lot to do with shaping the future of Palestinian politics and not just about the spark of the embassy move," he told "Power Lunch."

In fact, there are a lot of moving parts in the Middle East right now, along with general change underway, said Rubin.

"Every U.S. administration is often defined by the problem that no one saw coming," he said, like Bosnia for President Bill Clinton, Kuwait for President George H.W. Bush and Syria for President Barack Obama.

"Despite all the chaos right now, we still may get a problem which is coming in seemingly from left field."

— CNBC's Nyshka Chandran and Reuters contributed to this report.