Guarding against millennial dreams, and remaining aware of both the role of Realpolitik in diplomacy and of the usual gap between electoral proclamations and actual policy, what can we reasonably expect insofar as Israel and the Middle East are concerned from the new Administration of President Donald J. Trump?
Most generally, there should certainly be a kind of sea-change in attitude. The key reality of the Obama Administration—symbolized by the disastrous Iran nuclear deal--was a conscious “opening” to the Muslim (and above all Shiite) world, the reverse side of which was a cooling of relations with the Jewish state. Obama’s dislike of Bibi Netanyahu was not only openly personal, but also reflected policy. Israel as a military-political “ally” would continue to receive support, but a positive attitude towards Israel as a key democratic partner in the Middle East was de-emphasized.
Beyond this, there are clear indications of a deeper change. Trump’s immediate family has several Jewish connections through marriage, not least an Orthodox Jewish (by conversion) daughter and Jewish grandchildren. And he is a longtime and enthusiastic supporter, politically and financially, of the Jewish State. He has a longstanding friendship with Bibi Netanyahu, pro-Israel Orthodox political advisors (above all, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner), has headed up the annual Israel Day parade in New York City, and so on.
His statement before AIPAC during the Presidential campaign (including rejection of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, and a pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem) was clear and wide-ranging, and he has already nominated a series of pro-Israel and anti-Iranian figures, many of whom are Jewish, to high positions in his impending Cabinet. (He also, reportedly, has warned Obama against sealing his “legacy” by selling Israel out through a unilateral UN Security Council declaration of a Palestinian state.)
Hence the expectation that his Israel and M.E. policies will be decidedly more favorable than those of Obama (and, should she have won, Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former Secretary of State), is rational and understandable. However, as the Italians say, Chi vivrà, vedrà, Who lives, will see (how things turn out). Trump is, insofar as foreign affairs generally are concerned, largely an unknown. He has stressed an “America First” policy, focusing on revving up economic development and employment (see his recent China tweets) and voiced doubts about NATO (many of whose members are in arrears), and about failed “nation-building” in the Middle East (directed largely at American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan).
Most concerning is his seemingly positive view of Putin and of Russia, which seems to discount Moscow’s aggressive policy (in Crimea-Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere), something reinforced by his appointment of several Cabinet heads with close links to the Kremlin (Lt. General Flynn, for the National Security Administration, and, reportedly, the Exxon chairman, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State).
What will be the litmus paper test of the new Administration insofar as Israel is concerned? Three issues: the pledged moving of the US embassy to Israel’s capitol, Jerusalem (something Presidential candidates have to date never followed through on); cancelling or, more probably, markedly amending, Obama’s Iran nuclear deal; and resisting on-going “two-state solution” pressures. (This “solution”, the hallmark of failed US policy for over twenty years, now seems dead on arrival in any case, although it is concerning that Trump continues to refer--an old Presidential temptation--to wanting to broker an Israeli-Palestinian “deal of the century”.)
Of this triad, while finally recognizing Jerusalem would be nice, it is already decided de facto, as is (through Palestinian rejectionism and a broad negative Israeli consensus) the “two-state solution” issue. But decisively blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon is, surely, for Israel the most strategically important issue for Trump to face, and the one on which his general Israel and M.E. policy will turn.
Nevertheless, changing the US-Israel atmospherics to something positive, rather than neutral or even negative, is important, and will finally bring Administrative attitudes into line both with US popular and Congressional opinion. But again, insofar as policy is concerned, that alone will be insufficient. If President Trump pursues a neo-isolationist foreign policy, allowing Russia to dominate a Hezbollah- and Iranian-backed Assad government (even if, as pledged, he ups the ante on the US-backed war against IS in Syria and Iraq), and if he doesn’t move quickly on the Jerusalem issue and/or backs off on amending the Iranian nuclear deal, the disappointment—in the American Jewish community and in Israel—will be palpable.
At this point, then, an attitude of guarded optimism and watchful waiting is probably best. Better to keep the pressure on, and be buoyed by major improvements when and if they come, than to be thrown into despair by failed utopian dreams and what may prove, despite better atmospherics, to be the usual Realpolitik business.
(Prof. Frederick Krantz, Director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, is Editor of the Daily Isranet Briefing)
Prof. Frederick Krantz, Director (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research)
Rob Coles (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research)