WASHINGTON—There is much to learn about what Donald Trump’s foreign policy is going to look like, with one of the most anticipated issues being his approach to Israel. After eight years of the Obama administration, the relationship between the U.S. and its Middle East partner has frayed considerably over significant and seemingly insurmountable differences, those concerning the nuclear deal with Iran and the expanding settlements in the West Bank being the most consequential, if not existential.
Trump started off his campaign signaling he would be “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but he has shifted considerably in recent weeks toward the views of the staunchest Zionists. This has included tapping a man considered to be to the right of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as U.S. ambassador to Israel, choosing another pro-settlement Republican as his international business adviser, welcoming the heretofore marginalized Israeli ambassador into the bosom of his inner circle in Washington, and, just recently, appointing his son-in-law, who is reportedly behind bringing all these players into the fold, as a senior adviser.
Trump’s not-so-subtle slide toward the far right of the spectrum has alarmed more moderate—some would say Democratic—Jewish groups and establishment writers, who sense in this group a strong consensus against a two-state solution for Israeli Jews and Arab Palestinians. Collectively, there is more support here for expanded settlements in contested Palestinian territories, and for moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, than there has been at the levers of Washington power in a long time, if ever. If these forces have their way, an already fragile Middle East could be headed for a new regional conflagration, with the peace process turned back decades.
“It is concerning because this is an administration that seems to be backing away from a longstanding, bipartisan consensus in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a longstanding bipartisan U.S. foreign policy opposing actions that hurt the prospects of that two-state solution, including settlement expansion,” said Dylan Williams, vice president for government affairs for J Street—which, among other moderate stances, supports the Iran nuclear agreement.
The issue took center stage in December when, after the U.S. abstained from a UN Security Council vote calling for a halt to the settlements, Trump blasted off a series of tweets calling out the Obama administration for the nuke deal and for not vetoing the UN resolution, and then directly urging the Israeli people to “stay strong,” promising that “things will get better after Jan. 20.” This came less than a month after his senior aide Kellyanne Conway insisted that moving the embassy was “a big priority” for Trump.
“It’s definitely alarming,” said Williams. “Like so many of Trump’s tweets and remarks, it remains to be seen how much is rhetoric and how much he plans to put into action.” But a “reversal” on the two-state solution and the embassy, he added, “would be very dangerous for us, and especially for the Israeli people.”
Already, the wheels are turning. On the first day of the new congressional session, failed GOP presidential candidates Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, along with Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller, introduced legislation to declare Jerusalem the official capital of Israel and to move the embassy there from Tel Aviv. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wrote a letter to Trump warning him against the move, saying it would have “a disastrous impact” on the peace process. Going further, Jordan warned the incoming president that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be a “red line” for Jordan and that there would be “catastrophic” consequences.
Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has only emboldened this ideological trajectory. Friedman is an Orthodox Jew and Long Island bankruptcy lawyer who co-chaired Trump’s Israel advisory committee on the campaign with longtime Trump business lawyer Jason Greenblatt, who is now special representative for international negotiations. Both men have close ties to Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, who reportedly helped “guide” Trump’s speech last year to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and whose appointment to the White House has been hailed as closing this powerful circle.
Friedman not only thinks the settlements are legal but has called the two-state solution an “illusion” and has promised backers on the campaign trail that Trump will do nothing to pressure Israel into negotiations. He is an active supporter of and donor to the conservative Beit El settlement in the West Bank. He has said J Street is “worse than Kapos,” referring to Jewish Nazi collaborators, and said the Anti-Defamation League critics of Trump sounded like “morons.”
Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., is reportedly frozen out of the Obama White House, but he has so far found a warm reception in this Trump confederacy. He has accused the Obama administration of colluding with the UN on the anti-settlement resolution and defended Steve Bannon and Breitbart News against charges of anti-Semitism. Dermer helped arrange for Netanyahu’s controversial speech before Congress in 2015. He has also called for the embassy move, and considers Friedman “an excellent choice” for ambassador.
For the ultra-conservative pro-Israel factions in Washington, these are welcome developments. The Republican Jewish Coalition readily endorsed Friedman.
AIPAC, however, after an embarrassing moment when Trump practically brought the house down criticizing Obama at its winter meeting in 2016, declined comment for this story. As did the American Enterprise Institute, the seat of the intellectual neoconservative policy movement in Washington. “I think these groups will embrace Trump,” guesses Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University and coauthor of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. “The fact that Trump has been talking so starkly pro-Israel must be music to their ears.”
It’s a no-brainer for former UN ambassador and AEI scholar John Bolton, who spoke before the American Friends of Beit El last month in New York, assuring those assembled that Trump would likely move the embassy and stop U.S. opposition to the settlement. But the other prominent neoconservatives who served as President George W. Bush’s spear point on Middle East policy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a different story. Many have reacted more tentatively, if not suspiciously, toward Trump on the Israeli issue, mostly because many of them headed “#NeverTrump” and other efforts to thwart his campaign in the first place.
“They have tended to be very pro-Israel and leaning toward the Netanyahu-Likud side of Israel politics. Most neocons have not said very much in public about a two-state solution. But they all have been very vocal in their opposition to Trump, from day one,” Walt tells TAC. “And that has yet to change.”
“I think they don’t trust his foreign policy, and are genuinely concerned about some of the anti-Semitic and racist elements embedded within the Trump movement,” Walt said.
Still they appear at least aware that he will be friendlier toward Israel’s interests, at least those interests espoused by Netanyahu and the conservative factions in the government.
Elliott Abrams, for example, is happy with the Friedman pick, and said so at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It seems very likely that under the Trump administration the United States will return to past practices and defend Israel again,” he wrote in Newsweek, referring to the settlement issue. “That would be a good start for 2017.”
Even Bill Kristol, possibly Trump’s worst critic from the right, has had a few positive words for Trump in recent days, mostly because he sees Obama’s approach to Israel as so abhorrent. “Trump will recalibrate the U.S.-Israel relationship, as he has said many times; he is much more friendly than the Obama administration has been,” he told MSNBC after the UN resolution vote.
Meanwhile, Jay Bergman, professor of Russian history at Central Connecticut State University and a contributor at the hard-right Jerusalem Post, accuses Jewish-American political interests like AIPAC of becoming too comfortable with the status quo and their access to the Washington establishment to fully endorse the radical moves that Trump and his coterie are talking about.
“The Zionist Organization of America trusts Trump, is pleased by his appointments generally, and its leaders probably find Trump’s populism preferable to the Democrats’ liberalism,” Bergman tells TAC. “Most of the others, including AIPAC, are led by Democrats who have come to value bipartisanship and the personal relations they have long enjoyed with the White House and the Congress much more than they do pursuing what they say is their sole objective, namely enhancing Israel’s security by strengthening support for it in the U.S.”
Unlike the J Street crowd, Bergman does not think that an embassy move or even a U.S. abandonment of the two-state solution would necessarily trigger a regional conflict. He believes the neighboring Arab states are more concerned about a nuclear Iran and would be more supportive of Trump’s efforts to undermine the deal spearheaded by the Obama administration.
“The Iran deal is easily the worst thing that Obama did in the last eight years,” Bergman insists. “Sunni Arabs are not dumb; they know Iran poses a far greater threat to them than Israel’s survival does, even though they can’t say so publicly.”
But no one—not Bergman on the right, J Street on the center-left, or Walt from his realist point of view—knows what Trump is really going to do, how much is bluster, or whether he will actively pursue Israel’s interests or merely pull back from a proactive negotiating role in the peace process and let both sides do their thing. Each option would have its own impact on U.S. security, and the tradeoffs are sure to spur debate in the first days of Trump’s new administration.
“We don’t have a clue yet; we don’t know how the machinery is going to work,” said Walt. “[His] was a populist campaign where he simply sold himself and hasn’t had to make decisions or choose between different options. Therefore it is hard to know which way this is going to go.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, DC-based freelance reporter.