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Israel and The Trump Era

Viewpoints, November 2016
Prof. Eytan Gilboa

prof-eytan-gilboa

Although US President-elect Donald Trump made several statements during the election campaign on Israeli issues (some that contradicted the others), because of campaign hype their reliability is questionable.

However, it is likely that in contrast to the Obama presidency, Trump will usher in an improvement in relations between Jerusalem and Washington.

Lacking any political experience, he will have to invest time and energy in formulating policy on complex domestic and foreign issues. Due to his extensive experience in business and his election pledges to significantly boost the US economy, he will probably concentrate his energies on these spheres.

It is likely that he will delegate efforts in foreign affairs and security matters to Vice- President-elect Mike Pence, a veteran Member of Congress and member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and to those he appoints in the critical roles of Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and National Security Adviser.

Three of his close associates, due to be appointed to senior positions in his administration and who are known for their strong support of Israel, are former New York Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.

During the Obama era US-Israeli relations suffered many disagreements on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the US-led nuclear deal with Iran. Israel had strong reservations about US policy towards Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi and the US attitude to the civil war in Syria and Russian intervention there.

On the personal level the Obama-Netanyahu relationship exuded a particularly toxic element that hobbled ties between the two countries. It is likely that the personal relationship between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be much better and may resemble the ties that existed between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush.

During the campaign, Trump slammed the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s role, for, as he termed it, leaving Israel in the lurch. He declared that for him Israel is the most important US ally in the Middle East. On the one hand, he boasted that he would be Israel’s biggest supporter, but on another occasion claimed to be neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

US President-elect Donald J. Trump meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu at Trump Tower in New York, September 25; Credit: donaldjtrump.com

US President-elect Donald J. Trump meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu at Trump Tower in New York, September 25; Credit: donaldjtrump.com

He also asserted that Israel, like other countries receiving US military aid, such as South Korea, Japan and Germany, will have to pay for it. The next day, he issued a correction and explained that Israel is a special case because it supports the US. As many candidates before him, he promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In stark contrast to the steadfast US position since the Six Day War, he declared that he did not oppose settlements in the West Bank.

He has noted his connection to Judaism; his daughter converted to Judaism, married a Jew and he has Jewish grandchildren.

Since Trump is an anti-politician, it is difficult to know how he will pursue a new policy for the Middle East and Israel. All recent presidential candidates have promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. No one carried out this promise. Like other presidents, Trump will hear from the State and Defense Departments that such a move would jeopardize US relations with the Muslim and Arab world. Will he move the embassy to Jerusalem, or not, no one knows?

“It is possible that in the Trump era, US relations with Israel will return to a less rocky path”

Although he declared that he would cancel the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump will probably find it difficult to do so. However, he is much more likely to guarantee that Tehran fulfills all its nuclear obligations. He will also be more inclined to deal more effectively with Iran’s aggressive and terroristic behavior in the region.

Given Washington’s past failures, Trump will not prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but will aim to block anti-Israeli resolutions in international forums.

Trump will attempt to reach an understanding with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin; this might include an agreement on the Syrian conflict. It is not clear if such an understanding on Syria will help or hinder Israel.

Defense cooperation between Israel and the US, which was not impaired even during tense periods between Obama and Netanyahu, may improve. The US recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) giving aid to Israel to the tune of $ 3.8 billion per year for 10 years. Obama imposed two tough conditions: the gradual ending of the use of aid funds for local purchases from the Israeli defense industry and a commitment not to appeal to Congress for further assistance. The agreement has not been approved by Congress and the president can unwrap it. Perhaps, aided by the Republican Congress, Trump could agree to improve the MOU in Israel’s favor.

After eight years, which included periods of tension and disagreement, it is possible that in the Trump era, US relations with Israel will return to a less rocky path.

Professor Eytan Gilboa was a founding Director of the School of Communication and the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University, and currently is Chair and Academic Director of the IPD Forum. The article was previously published in the Globes financial daily.