ISRAEL AND TRUMP A YEAR LATER: HOW ARE WE DOING NOW?

 

People love anniversaries, and they love giving grades.

And amid all the hoopla this week marking the centennial of the Battle of Beersheba and 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, another more recent anniversary will be noted next week on November 8: one year since Donald Trump surprised the world by being elected as the 45th president of the United States of America.

And what a year it has been. A whirlwind year, a tempestuous year. A year of tweets and insults, hirings and firings, threats and promises, and battles with Congress, the press, and allies. It has been a decidedly unconventional year with a president the likes of which the US has never seen before.

And what about Israel?

After eight rocky years with former president Barack Obama – years that saw an unprecedented degree of rancor and open tension between Jerusalem and Washington, years that led to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and the anti-settlement UN Security Council Resolution 2334 two years later, but also years that led to the 2017 signing of a $38 billion military aid package – many Israelis were relieved that one era had ended, and another was about to begin.

Some, most notably Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett, welcomed Trump’s election by declaring, “The era of a Palestinian state is over.” And he was not alone on the Right in expressing joy at Trump’s victory.

After all, Trump promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, did he not? Trump said he would scrap the Iranian deal, did he not? Trump said throughout the campaign that he would be a friend to the Jewish state, and that Obama was not.

So now, a year later, how are we doing? How has Israel fared so far under a man who has been described as the most unpresidential of presidents? What grade does he get on all matters pertaining to Israel?

The questions are easier than the answers. Because while the mind yearns to neatly compartmentalize and pigeonhole, the bag, said Eran Lerman, of the newly founded Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, is mixed. “There is no straightforward answer,” he said.

It is mixed, partly because there are many different components to the question of whether a president is good or bad for Israel. Lerman, as well as former ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon, and Washington’s former ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, broke the question down into component parts.

And Lerman opted to start with the problems.

“The main negative is that there is a sense that Trump is inconsistent, and that incoherent policy decisions have reduced America’s standing in the world,” he said. “We need a strong and highly respected America in international affairs.”

Lerman, a former deputy head of the National Security Council, said that an America that loses prestige and standing in the eyes of the world hurts Israel’s position.

Shapiro, who served as Obama’s point man in Israel and is currently a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, explains that it is good for Israel when the US – the Jewish state’s strongest backer – is deeply respected in the world.

“It is always in Israel’s interests for the US to be seen as the leader in the international community, and for nations to acknowledge that,” he said.

“When we are not, when our prestige is hit, and when rivals like Russia or China – or troublemaking nations like North Korea – challenge us, and we don’t seem able to respond, even if the administration is popular in the Middle East, it weakens the impression of US preeminence, and that is not in Israel’s interests.”

It is also not in Israel’s interest, Shapiro argued, for a US government to be seen in constant chaos and turmoil, and for a president to be preoccupied with fighting for his political life and with legal battles, because then he will be unable to focus on significant initiatives, including those critical to Israel.

An America preeminent in international affairs, he said, is better able to protect Israel’s interests.

Another aspect that Lerman said he found troubling is that certain domestic events – such as the aftermath of the Charlottesville riots – have raised “serious questions that were lingering from the beginning, particular among American Jewry, about Trump’s basic position on domestic affairs.

“For Israel to identify, as some Israelis have opted for, with Trump’s leadership, further alienates us from American Jewry in ways we can barely afford,” said Lerman, a former head of the American Jewish Committee’s office in Jerusalem. Lerman said that Trump is turning into a “wedge issue” between Israel and American Jewry, something that is not good for the state.

According to Shapiro, it is “completely legitimate for the foreign leader of any country to want to have the best possible relationship with the US president in order to advance the interests of his country.”

But, he added, “I think in Israel’s unique case, given its close connection with many parts of the American population, including the American Jewish community, it is important to do that and at the same time be attentive to the concerns and the vulnerabilities felt by many of those same Americans who are deeply committed to Israel. I think it is possible to be in close partnership with the administration, and not send signals of indifference to the concerns and vulnerabilities felt by American Jews and other supporters of Israel.”

Shapiro diplomatically sidestepped the question of whether he felt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has forged a close relationship with Trump, was successfully walking that tightrope.

And then there are the regional issues. Here, too, Lerman said, the picture is mixed, with some positives and some negatives, an assessment Ayalon agreed with.

One of the clear positives, Lerman said, is America’s vastly improved relationship with Egypt. Obama, he said, threw longtime US ally Hosni Mubarak “out the window like a sick cat,” something that reverberated far and wide in the region, with other allies – including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – wondering whether they might share the same fate.

Trump’s action in Syria in April, when he launched Tomahawk missiles following the use of chemical weapons, sent a strong message, Lerman said, though he argued that since then the US policy in Syria has been muddled and ambiguous, raising questions as to “whether the new administration can deliver on its promise to become a predominant regional player.”

Ayalon took this criticism even further, saying that Syria has “not been handled in the best way.”

He said that Obama left a void in Syria exploited by Russia and Hezbollah, and that Trump has not filled that void. On the contrary, Ayalon said, he has withdrawn support for the pro-American militias in Syria and given the cold shoulder to the Iraqi Kurds in their desire for independence – neither of which were actions in Israel’s interests.

But, Lerman said, there have also been significant positives for Israel since Trump was elected, with the “two obvious” ones being a shift on Iranian policy and a different approach on the Palestine issue.

Trump’s rhetoric and actions on Iran sent a clear message that he views it as an enemy and a destabilizing actor in the region, Lerman noted. This is important because it “prioritizes the need to stop Iran in its tracks, both in the direction of Iran’s nuclear capability and also regarding its regional subversion. This is not something that was woven into the decisions taken by the Obama administration.”

And on the Palestinian issue, he said, while Trump talks about conflict resolution, about the ultimate deal, the focus since he came into office has been on conflict management.

“That is not a bad thing,” he said. “I am very doubtful about the prospect of an early conflict resolution, which makes the need for effective conflict management all the more acute.”

According to Ayalon, currently the head of an Israel advocacy organization called The Truth about Israel, the Trump administration has a “much better understanding” of Israel’s position on the Palestinian issue than Obama’s did, and this is something now manifest in the US “not issuing a condemnation every time there is a new balcony or building built in Judea and Samaria.”

Ayalon said that the biggest change Trump has brought about is one of tone and atmosphere. “Either by design or default, Obama encouraged BDS – the delegitimizing of Israel – by not condemning it, by letting Israel fight for itself in international forums, and of course the most extreme and obvious example of this was the abstention on the UN Security Council Resolution [2334].”

Ayalon also said that Obama used the left-wing J Street to “try and drive a wedge between Israel and some parts of the Jewish community, and between Israel and the American people. We certainly had eight very tough years.”

Now, Ayalon said, the atmosphere is fundamentally different.

“The atmosphere was very acrimonious, it was almost poisonous between the White House and the PMO,” he said of the Obama years, during which he served from 2009 to 2013 as deputy foreign minister. “Now we see them speak from the same page, and if there is dissension – and I’m sure there is – it is kept inside the room, and certainly we don’t see leaks in the press. This is a major gain.

According to Ayalon, “When the sense everywhere is that the US has Israel’s back, and we speak from the same page, then there is much less incentive from Europeans and others as well – such as the Arab countries – to attack Israel, single it out and call for boycotts.”

Shapiro took strong issue with Ayalon’s characterization of the Obama administration as “not having Israel’s back” and thereby opening the door to those who wanted to vilify the country, saying the previous administration was committed “to a fault” to protecting Israel from delegitimization and blocking all kinds of anti-Israel initiatives at the UN and elsewhere.

Regarding Obama’s final significant action on Israel, the failure to veto UNSC 2334, Shapiro said that though there was obviously disagreement between the two countries on that issue, “that doesn’t tell us much about the arc of the eight years of the US posture on protecting Israel internationally.”

Shapiro does agree with Ayalon, however, about the tone of the relationship. “I think it is always more comfortable when disagreements are aired out in private, and that tends to be the approach the two governments have taken.”

But, he added, “I should point out that it wasn’t only the Obama administration that chose to make the disagreements public; sometimes it was the Israeli side that did so.” The reason, he explained, was that it was occasionally “politically advantageous” for Israeli leaders to be in open disagreement with Obama.

“That is clearly not the case with President Trump,” he said. “Not only because he is perhaps more popular [in Israel], but also because they worry about how he would respond. His reputation as somebody who will spout off and criticize in public those with whom he is in disagreement is probably a strong deterrent to openly expressing disagreement.” And this is something, Shapiro noted, that gives Trump leverage.

But how he will use that leverage, as well as leverage he has gained over the Palestinians – primary because of their desire to remain on his “good side” and his “threat” to move the embassy to Jerusalem – remains an open question one year after his stunning election victory.

 

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