Contrary to the prevailing view of the American establishment, Trump decided that the connection with Israel was more important for the interests of his country than to try to advance the failed “peace process”.
In the wake of the turbulent relationship between former US President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, two broadly different visions of how the US-Israel alliance should be repaired have developed.
The one vision is that which is prominent among the foreign policy elites. In their book, Our Separate Ways – hailed as an “urgent examination of why the alliance [between Israel and the US] has deteriorated and the dangers of its neglect”, authors Dana Allin and Steve Simon discuss the inherent danger of this relationship falling apart, due to, in their words “powerful demographic, cultural, and strategic currents in Israel and the US” driving the two countries apart. What needs to be done to repair it they believe, is mainly that Israel reach a two state solution with the Palestinians.
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy held a panel event discussing this topic, in which some participants raised ideas they felt were needed for improving relations with the previous administration. Among these were that Netanyahu should create a wider coalition for maintaining bipartisan support for Israel, including more than just right wing parties, by reaching out to Democrats in America, clarifying settlement policy and more.
Commenting on the issue from the perspective of the Israeli foreign policy community, Eran Etzion, former Director of Planning at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, in assessing the future of US-Israel relations, explained that issues such as the Iran agreement and the Israel-Palestinian conflict will continue to be a point of tension for the US and Israel, irrelevant of the future US Administration. He wrote: “given these structural constraints, a recalibration of the relations between the two leaders and administrations, assuming it is at all attempted, will most probably be limited, rough, and fragile.”
However, for all the speculation of what would happen with a new administration in Washington, his bottom line was clear: “the next political cycle will not see a reversal of the negative trend now apparent in U.S.-Israeli relations.”
Shalom Lipner, a former bureaucrat in the Prime Minister’s office in Israel, in an article in The Atlantic, recommended ‘maximum candor’ between the US and Israel as a first step to fixing the problem.
This vision was perhaps best laid out, in a policy paper published by The Council on Foreign Relations in November, 2016. Robert Blackwill, former deputy assistant to President Bush, and Philip Gordon, special assistant to President Obama and White House coordinator for Middle East, North Africa and Gulf Region affairs, gave the following six suggestions they thought were needed to repair the relationship going forward:
- Seek to reframe the relationship at a summit in early 2017 at Camp David focused on developing a new strategic vision for a changing Middle East, committing the United States to remain engaged in the region, seriously addressing the Palestinian problem, and institutionalizing an intensive bilateral strategic dialogue.
- Enhance Israel’s sense of security and confidence in the United States by committing to expanded missile defense, anti-tunnel, and cybersecurity cooperation under the terms of the September 2016 long term defense assistance Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
- Move beyond the debate about the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement and work together to implement and rigorously enforce it, with a commitment to imposing penalties on Iran for noncompliance and a joint plan for preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons after the deal’s main restrictions expire.
- Develop detailed common understandings about how to more effectively contain Iranian hegemonic regional designs and take action designed to do so.
- Agree on a set of specific, meaningful measures that Israel will take unilaterally to improve Palestinian daily life and preserve prospects for a two-state solution, linking continued U.S. willingness to refrain from or oppose international action on Israeli settlements or the peace process to Israel’s implementation of such positive, concrete steps.
- Expand economic cooperation focused on bilateral trade, investment energy, innovation, and Israel’s integration into the region.
Then, there is the other vision, in contrast to the policy elites. Or to put it more precisely, there is the Trump perspective:
- He invited Netanyahu to the White House early in his Presidency and treated him with respect.
- He visited Israel on his first trip abroad, and became the first sitting U.S. President to visit the Western Wall.
- He met with Mahmoud Abbas, confronted him for being deceptive, and called him out to his face about incitement against Israel.
- He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, pledged to move the embassy and moved it.
- US Vice President Pence traveled to Israel within the first year of his term and gave a speech at the Knesset.
- Trump threw out the Iran deal, added sanctions on Iran, and increased coordination on combating Iran’s aspirations for nuclear weapons and increased regional hegemony.
- President Trump’s UN Ambassador, Nikki Haley, has single handedly reduced anti-Israel rhetoric at the UN, from constant roars to peeps here and there, by rejecting the constant Israel bashing with an unmatched willingness to fight against it.
- The US has withdrawn from the U.N. Human Rights Council because, as Ambassador Haley said, it is “a protector of human rights abusers” and accused the body of “politicizing and scapegoating countries with positive human rights records”. And it spends most of its time bashing Israel. The US withdrew its membership in UNESCO as well, citing anti-Israel bias.
- The US recently announced that it will cease funding of UNRWA, which it says is fundamentally flawed. Furthermore, the Trump administration is attempting to apply the standard definition of ‘refugee’ to the Palestinian refugees – the definition of refugee that applies to all other refugees, from all other conflicts in the world, since the establishment of the League of Nations.
- The two-state rhetoric has been taken off the table, by simply substituting the phrase “whatever the parties agree to”.
- US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has been not backed down from criticizing the Palestinian Authority in light of the vicious attacks against Israeli citizens.
The gap between President Trump and foreign policy elites was not only limited to the broad view of US-Israel relations, but even in the micro, as illustrated by the criticism he received for moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Former Secretary of State John Kerry incorrectly predicted that the move would lead to a Middle East explosion. The NY Times emphasized that no fewer than 11 former US Ambassadors to Israel called President Trump’s embassy move “wrongheaded, dangerous or deeply flawed.” Former State Department Adviser, Aaron Miller, a 20 year veteran of the peace process, said that as a result of the move, forging a peace agreement would no longer be ‘mission impossible’, now it would be ‘mission impossible on steroids’.
Simon and Allin also penned an op-ed in Israel’s Ha’aretz lamenting the developments in the US-Israel relationship under the Trump Administration. In fact, towards the end of their book, they note that one of things that could disrupt their prediction would be a Republican candidate being elected in 2016 and 2020 and having a Republican Congress.
What has happened under the Trump Administration was encapsulated best, with one reservation, by former US Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzner, who said: “The reality is that the United States has been trying to ride two different horses for much of the last 50 years, if not for the entire 70 years [of Israel’s existence]. One of those is to act as a third-party mediator and honest broker to the peace process… The second horse we’ve been trying to ride is to expand the relationship with Israel…What President Trump has effectively done here is that he is going to ride only one horse…He’s decided that it’s more important for the United States to expand, enhance, deepen, and strengthen its relationship with Israel than it is to enhance the very peace process that he has raised expectations about with regards to the United States’ role.”
President Trump has decided that it’s important to strengthen the US-Israel relationship, because that is where the US interests lie. But it has not come at the expense of the peace process. To the policy elites, it seems as though it comes at the expense of the peace process, precisely because they have created peace process theories which have brought forth the Oslo framework and two state solution which continues to dominate their thinking even today. However, these ideas were distant from reality, a prescription of what should be, the attempt to impose their framework on a non-compliant reality.
Instead of being bound by a grand strategy, preconceived theories or the conventional wisdom preconceptions, Trump came onto the stage and decided to look at the issues in the Middle East with a fresh outlook, a new paradigm.
He did so by asking the simple and obvious questions none of the policy elites were asking – Why is there one refugee organization for the Palestinians and another for the rest of the world? That makes no sense, let’s restore the refugee definition to what it should be; Why should I give US taxpayer dollars to the Palestinians? All they do is bash us; Why are we part of and helping to fund organizations like UNHRC and UNESCO? All they do is waste our time and money on bashing our allies and our values, That makes no sense, we don’t need to be there; Why shouldn’t the Embassy be in Jerusalem, isn’t that where Israel defines its capital to be and where their government sits?; Why are we locked into the idea of two states, maybe there is a better solution? Let’s explore different approaches; How can the Palestinians teach their children to hate Israel and attack it? That won’t bring peace, might as well talk to Abbas about that; And, Mahmoud Abbas deceived me, should I not tell him? Since Israel is our ally, should I not make it clear that we are behind them?
President Trump’s vision for repairing the relationship begins by taking a fresh look at reality and moving forward from there. Many of the issues Trump has tackled are low hanging fruit which have been hanging there for years. They relate to topics which have not been addressed in the past for either fear of their impact on other issues or because proposed initiatives didn’t fit into well prescribed theories and complicated strategies. But Trump has decided on a different path for repairing the relationship, one based in looking at reality and taking appropriate action.
Gideon Israel is co-head of the Jerusalem Washington Center and can be contacted at Gisrael@jw-center.org