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Trump and Israel

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” [1] 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 [2] considered to be to the right of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as U.S. ambassador to Israel, choosing another pro-settlement Republican [3] as his international business adviser, welcoming the heretofore marginalized Israeli ambassador into the bosom [4] 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 [5].

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 [6] to the settlements, Trump blasted off a series of tweets [7] 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” [8] 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 [9] 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 [10] 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” [11] 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 [12]. Both men have close ties to Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, who reportedly helped “guide” [13] 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,” [14] referring to Jewish Nazi collaborators, and said the Anti-Defamation League critics of Trump sounded like “morons.” [15]

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 [16] of colluding with the UN on the anti-settlement resolution and defended Steve Bannon and Breitbart News [17] 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 [18] 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 [19]. “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 [20] 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 [21], 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 [22].

Meanwhile, Jay Bergman, professor of Russian history at Central Connecticut State University and a contributor [23] 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.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Trump and Israel"

#1 Comment By VA assessor On January 18, 2017 @ 6:54 am

I voted for Trump because I expect him to pursue America’s interests, not waste time and money on Israel.

We’ve given too much money to Israel and spent too much attention to Israel and its endless problems.

It’s America time.

#2 Comment By PAXNOW On January 18, 2017 @ 7:29 am

At first Trump came across as a breath of fresh air. He was perceived as offering a new wind that blew the sails of America toward an independent and productive foreign policy for the betterment of the U.S. and not as a near subservient client state for Saudi Arabia and Israel. He seems to have done a 180 degree turn around and firmly validated a continuation of the Israel first policy, which has bewildered most Americans, and continues to cause the rest of the world to question just who is steering the U.S. ship of state. American blood and treasure cannot be invested in furtherance of this policy without real debate. Then who owns Congress and now the presidency? Sad and frustrating for Americans.

#3 Comment By Uncle Billy On January 18, 2017 @ 9:20 am

Netanyahu likes Trump and perhaps believes that he can control Trump. The Trump Administration may pretend to be evenhanded, but they will be strongly pro Israeli and AIPAC will support Trump.

#4 Comment By Kizhe On January 18, 2017 @ 11:26 am

I voted for Trump for the first time ever while NOT holding my nose :-). But got confused here – America First or Israel first?

#5 Comment By EarlyBird On January 18, 2017 @ 3:28 pm

I recognize that Trump has yet to even be sworn in, but let’s face it: every cabinet appointment and statement of first priorities so far has exposed him to be the Uber-Republican, the Republican Establishment on steroids, not the destroyer of the GOP status quo, not the shaker-upper he promised he would be to the Republican rank and file who supported him.

Perhaps the biggest surprise that will come from the Trump presidency is, alas, how conventionally Republican it will be.

#6 Comment By bacon On January 18, 2017 @ 4:27 pm

With the electorate almost evenly divided one cannot lose both New York and Florida and win the US presidency. If one loses nearly all Jewish support, one loses New York and Florida. As long as this is so, all presidential candidates and presidents will offer more support to Israel than they would to another ally facing similar threats. Even Obama, with a famously contentious relationship with Netanyahu, was otherwise supportive.

#7 Comment By Dakarian On January 18, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

“He seems to have done a 180 degree turn around and firmly validated a continuation of the Israel first policy, which has bewildered most Americans, and continues to cause the rest of the world to question just who is steering the U.S. ship of state.”

He never really did a 180. A LOT of Trump is more hype and promises people think he made. I see it all the time in the entertainment sphere.

Trump, at first, started off talking more about focusing homeward and not giving allies a blank check. Then the SECOND there was a question about how he felt about Israel he went all out to show he was pro-Isreal, complete with doing videos on his own youtube channel expressing his devotion to the place. That was during the primaries.

His turnaround on Immigration I can see people being shocked by. His Big Army/hawkish nature was more obvious since, once he started talking actual foreign policy the ONLY place he seemed to be want to not get aggressive on was Russia but he DID fuss a lot about ‘america first’ and ‘useless wars’.

His stance on Isreal? Nope. That was clear as a bell.

#8 Comment By GILMAS On January 19, 2017 @ 10:12 am

In an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world, the USA would be well-advised to enhance its traditional role as world policeman.
In this context , Israel plays a crucial role in a turbulent Middle East.

#9 Comment By David M Zuniga On January 19, 2017 @ 4:28 pm

Witness true absurdity: How often do we see or hear mentioned the *constitutionality (legality)* of a Washington DC agency, bureau, department, grant, regulation, foreign aid, intervention or military action? Almost never…in news stories, conservative talk shows or by their callers; not on blogs or comment threads, either.

It is as though the law does not exist at all. When lawlessness is completely ignored, anything goes. “And every man did what was right in his own eyes”.

We are there. Astounding.

#10 Comment By Turbo Lent On January 19, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

@GILMAS : “In an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world, the USA would be well-advised to enhance its traditional role as world policeman.”

Except that we already did that. It made the world more dangerous and uncertain.

“In this context , Israel plays a crucial role in a turbulent Middle East.”

Yeah. Making it more turbulent, mostly. Wasn’t that Israel’s PM who demanded that we attack Iran? I’d call that pretty damn turbulent.

#11 Comment By Hexexis On January 20, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

An April 2016 issue of the Jewish weekly Forward called Trump’s appearance before the AIPAC convention AIPAC’s NRA Cincinnati moment; in 1977, when it formed its lobbying branch for gun rights, by which these days the NRA is almost exclusively known.

#12 Comment By collin On January 20, 2017 @ 3:57 pm

I hold a much simpler opinion for the Israel and Palestine peace negotiations. Israel is a single state and there will never be a separate Palestine. At this point, Palestine can not thrive economically on their own and become a war state and Israel really wants the extra land and cheap labor of Palestine. It will be ugly but I wish everybody simply admitted the truth here.

#13 Comment By Willem Houtman On January 21, 2017 @ 5:14 am

I am not happy with Trump supporting Israel for 100%, but when I found out, I realized he would be protected from being assassinated during the inauguration because of this… Israel rules the World… too bad for the Palestinians… but hopefully in time new opportunities will rise to stop this contemporary holocast…

#14 Comment By don On January 21, 2017 @ 7:01 am

Interesting that Chuck Shumer’s speech during the inauguration featured a letter from a civil war officer who wrote to his wife about the glory of giving one’s life in war.

Sounds like the neocons know they have another Bush the Idiot in the oval office and are laying the groundwork for sending our soldiers into future glorious proxy wars for Israel

#15 Comment By Dieter Heymann On January 21, 2017 @ 7:54 am

The move of the US embassy will have the same effect in most Muslim states as the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin had in Europe of the time.

#16 Comment By Hanna Khayyat On January 21, 2017 @ 9:37 am

What peace process? The powers that be, and esp. israel and the USA and including Arab governments and the EU, call it a “peace process” while the Zionist enterprise gobbles up ever more land, year after year. All Trump will do is take the mask off and make real US policy crystal clear. The world will then have to stop fooling itself about a phony peace process.

#17 Comment By [email protected] On January 21, 2017 @ 10:14 pm

I doubt that Trump will deliberately attract more terror attacks and deliberately rip off the US taxpayer by continuing the worst deal in history – the one we’ve got with Israel.

He’s going to make America great again. You don’t do that by wasting more time and money in the Middle East.

#18 Comment By what’s the deal On January 22, 2017 @ 10:20 am

““The Iran deal is easily the worst thing that Obama did in the last eight years,” “

And yet the worst deal America ever made is the one we made with Israel.

Hundreds of billions utterly wasted on cash giveaways to Israel instead of being spent on America’s own grave problems. Trillions spent on wars and responses to terror attacks that one way or another all came back to our Israel relationship.

And we got nothing from Israel in return.

At least Iran is only getting back its own money back. Israel by contrast is draining the lifeblood of the American people and openly trying to drag us into new wars.

#19 Comment By Michael Kenny On January 22, 2017 @ 11:50 am

Trump’s foreign policy will undoubtedly be Israel-centred but it will be interesting to see what effect that will have on other policy aspects, most notably Vladimir Putin, whose relationship to Trump has given rise to much comment. Israel needs NATO, which provides a legal pretext for keeping US forces and military equipment close to Israel. Equally, it’s hard to see how the US could wage any sort of a “war on terror” without the support of NATO and full use of the NATO bases, all the more so as any “war on terror” is unwinnable and is thus likely to drag on for a long time. Trump has called NATO “obsolete” inasmuch as, he says, it is not very effective against terrorism but as long as Putin is on the rampage and the US is unenthusiastic about defending Europe against him, the European members of the alliance have to think first about defending their own countries and only secondly about aiding Trump in his war on terror. Putin’s “sphere of influence” theory puts him on a collision course with Germany and the numerous small states of Eastern and Southern Europe whose only protection against Russia is Germany. And Germany is quietly but rapidly re-arming. A general war in Europe, particularly if it further discredited NATO through an American “cop out”, would not suit Israel at all. Put simply, if Putin wins, Israel loses. Thus, the logical knock-on consequence of a pro-Israel foreign policy is that Trump must “re-credibilise” NATO and the only way he can do that is by getting Putin out of Ukraine. Whether Trump has thought the thing through to that point remains to be seen.

#20 Comment By sifter On January 22, 2017 @ 10:53 pm

I think some of the comments here need a bit of perspective.

You can support our oppose Israeli settlements. But Iran is still, and has been chanting Death to America on a weekly basis for years, and corpses of Gays are still warm, hanging from construction cranes in Iran, so I think it’s a little disingenuous to decry Trumps support of Netanyahu while overlooking some serious sh!t-stirring by Iran over the years. We talk nice, and the Ayatollahs burn us in effigy and threaten our ships and sailors. Instead of reading into grand conspiracies of Likud- Wahabi cooperation, perhaps the fact that Saudi and Israel ARE communicating belies the troubling reality that Iran, not Israel, really is intent on setting the region ablaze.

#21 Comment By Blounttruth On January 23, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

Trump, like all will kiss the ring and commit troops, blood, and treasure to ensure the U.S. protect the more than capable Israel. The one flaw in the wheel in my opinion to date, but one that has become the norm so embedded in Americana that I will overlook it to watch for economic and trade policy, as well as the protection of the dollar as the elite work to collapse it and blame Trump. Russian connections stories, prostitute urine, and the like are merely the beginning, and when Trump really starts to play hardball, the globalists that own the majority of our leaders in the House and Senate will go to work to harm our economy to lay the blame at the feet of Trump. The question is, does he realize this and has he already a plan to outsmart them.

#22 Comment By big picture On January 23, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

The US objective should be disengagement from the region. It was a mistake to get involved in the first place, and we’ve paid a terrible price for it. The only interest we have over there any more is oil, we’re less dependent on that than we have been for decades, and whoever’s got it will sell it anyway.

#23 Comment By jesse On January 25, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

Remember the USS Liberty