A series of developments over the past year, chief among them the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, join long-term trends currently underway that, to a certain extent, have improved Israel’s geopolitical position. However, this could change as a result of a possible problematic settlement in Syria, the uncertainty surrounding the Palestinian issue, regional instability, and the still unclear direction the emerging world order will take. In addition, President Trump’s contradictory actions and rhetoric and lack of a coherent foreign policy doctrine, have potentially negative implications for Israel’s interests.
The United States – Trump’s rise to power brings with it an American administration friendlier to Israel than its predecessor and enables “turning a new page” in relations with Israel’s most significant ally. After the strained relations of the Obama administration, Trump’s visit to Israel four months into his presidency and the warmth and friendship he expressed signaled a positive turning point. Despite the visit’s harmonious atmosphere, central issues at the heart of Israel’s strategic interests – the settlement that is crystallizing in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran’s continual regional aggression and possible noncompliance with the nuclear agreement – could lead to frictions between Jerusalem and Washington down the road, and should not be ignored. Moreover, Israel faces other dilemmas, such as the degree to which it should publically embrace the new president and the sentiments and ethos that helped get him elected. The fact that most American Jews do not support this president only sharpens this dilemma. Given the polarization inside the United States, Israel’s problem of maintaining bi-partisan support grows, as does the need to guard the Jerusalem – Washington – American Jewry triangular relationship.
World Order – Ahead of the start of Trump’s tenure, there were growing suspicions that the United States, guided by a narrow definition of its interests, would further isolate itself internationally and limit its focus primarily to domestic matters. Some observers predicted that America would further relinquish the mantle of global leadership. The dozens of cruise missiles fired at a Syrian military base in response to the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s military forces in Idlib (April 2017), on the contrary, seemed to signal the new president’s determination to reestablish the American deterrence that had deteriorated during the previous administration, and to act as a leading power in the international arena. Yet, his announcement that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord (June 2017) only exacerbated uncertainty about Trump’s commitment to world leadership.
The United States faces many challenges across the globe, from the escalating nuclear threat posed by North Korea to Putin’s aggressions and subversions as he attempts to rebuild Moscow’s international standing. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to this end, called for a “post-West world order” (February 2017). At this time, the relationship between Washington and Moscow, although increasingly strained, has yet to take a clear shape. Nonetheless, the U.S. – Russia relationship is an essential shaping factor of the to the emerging 21st century world order. So, too, is America’s relationship with China, which continues to assert itself internationally (One Belt, One Road initiative, South China Sea, etc.)
It is difficult to predict whether President Trump will continuously consider a priority in keeping the United States at the top of the international order. American isolationism would be harmful to Israel, possibly eroding its ability to project strength and deterrence. Europe’s internal cohesion crisis, aggravated by waves of migrants and deadly ISIS terror attacks, further fogs the future direction of the new order. Although ISIS is in decline, and has lost important territorial holds, it maintains its capacity to unleash terror attacks (in fact, it becomes more reliant on international terrorism to bolster its image as it suffers losses in Syria and Iraq).
The Peace Process – President Trump continues to express his aspiration for the “ultimate deal” that would settle the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and bring peace between Israel and the broader Arab world. Implementation of Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was delayed so as not to hobble the chances of advancing peace negotiations. Continued American leadership of the peace process creates an opportunity for Israel to advance an agreement with a more sympathetic interlocutor. But it could also pressure Israel into painful concessions that would result in friction with the Trump administration, supportive as it may be.
The Palestinians are split both geographically and organizationally, and a durable, genuine reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is not expected anytime soon. The governing systems in both Ramallah and Gaza dysfunctional (especially in Gaza). In the event that Abu Mazen (who is 82) resigns his presidency, a power struggle for succession would likely erupt, possibly imperiling security cooperation with Israel. Recent changes in the Hamas leadership and the revision of their charter do not yet signal a substantive change. The combination of these factors taken together with the chasm between Israeli and Palestinian positions, testify to the scope of the “ultimate deal” challenge President Trump has taken on himself. U.S. abdication of its leadership role in the peace process would constitute a potential threat, as it would open the door to other international actors that are not as sympathetic to Israel.
Threats and Opportunities – At a time when the Middle East is wracked by turbulent violence, Israel is not, as in the past, facing conventional military threats from a neighboring Arab state’s regular army or a regional Arab coalition. However, this encouraging situation could change if Iran succeeds in establishing a military presence in the Syrian Golan and succeeds in its ambition to create a strategic corridor between Teheran and the Mediterranean. Such a corridor would constitute a space for direct Iranian influence and also enhance Hezbollah’s power as a military surrogate of Iran. Israel’s security relationships with Egypt, Jordan, and the moderate Sunni states are expanding. Israel is even seen as a partner and asset in the struggle against key threats: Iran’s regional subversion, and radical Islamic terror. Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal has been put on hold, even pushed back, but the threat has not been totally eradicated. The nuclear agreement relieved some of the pressure on Iran and allowed it to deepen the reach of its regional activities and influence, and it has scored gains in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Whereas Obama was willing to allow Iran a hand in shaping the new regional order, and questioned Saudi Arabia’s value as an asset, President Trump has demonstrably stood with the Sunni state against Iran.
The situation in Syria continues to present Israel with considerable challenges, especially because Iran has established itself as a key actor there – in such close proximity to Israel. With the help of Russia and Iran, Assad is expanding the territory under his control. This reality could bring Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps very close to Israel’s Golan Heights border.
Israel will need to continue rebuffing these developments, including through enlisting the help of the United States and continued coordination with Moscow. Until now, Israel has managed to build an effective working relationship with Russia that allows it to protect its interests. Positioning the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems in Syria highlights the caution Israel must exercise as it continues to intercept arms shipments to Hezbollah without coming into conflict with Moscow. Although Hezbollah, Israel’s most significant military threat, is mired in Syria, and Hamas is isolated and weakened, it is still possible that a round of conflict could break out with either of them. Moreover, the “Lone Wolf” Intifada has yet to fully subside and could take a new, more deadly turn especially as it has assumed a religious character (as seen on the Temple Mount in July 2017).
Israel’s relations with Turkey illustrate how volatile the Middle East is; it is imperative that Israel handles itself cautiously and with strategic acumen. The reconciliation agreement with Ankara (June 2016) and the possibility of deepening the relationship (including gas exports) did not prevent President Erdogan from verbally berating Israel, blaming it for the “Judaification” of Jerusalem and accusing it of apartheid policies (May 2017). Despite the possibility that regional actors will soften their approach to Israel, Jerusalem found the massive $110 billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia (May 2017) disconcerting. Israel express it concern that the deal could erode Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge. Indeed, the improvement of America’s relations with its traditional Arab allies in the region – a positive development from Israel’s perspective – could, in certain circumstances, come at Israel’s expense.
International Standing – Israel’s international standing draws from its military, economic, and strategic strength, as well as from its “soft power.” Israeli technologies (especially hi-tech, cyber, hydro and agricultural technologies) bring it international appeal. This has enhanced its relations with the rising powers of Asia and Africa. Narendra Modi’s state visit to Israel, the first visit ever of an Indian prime minister, was a watershed in these growing relations. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to China (March 2017) reflected the same trend. Israel’s gas finds, including the expectation of discovering and developing additional reserves, have generated leverage for relations and influence in the Eastern Mediterranean (in early 2017 Israel began supplying gas to Jordan). Lastly, despite decreasing successes in eroding Israel’s standing through BDS and other de-legitimization activities, and Israel’s expanding capacity to rebuff them, Jerusalem remains vulnerable to such attacks. UNESCO’s decisions to disregard the historical Jewish connection to the Temple Mount (October 2016) and to name the Cave of the Patriarchs (Mearat HaMachpela) and the Old City of Hebron as Palestinian Heritage Sites under severe threat of harm (July 7, 2017) make it clear that the battle against de-legitimization is not yet won.
Alongside the challenges and threats, Israel also has considerable opportunities: to improve its relationship with the United States; to deepen its relationship with the moderate Sunni world; and to implement a diplomatic initiative that would prevent Israel from becoming a bi-national state and losing its Jewish identity. The fact that Israel is not facing military threats from a neighboring Arab state’s regular army, together with its strategic strength and a sympathetic administration in Washington, opens a window of opportunity for a strategic move that will ensure the character of Israel’s future as both Jewish and democratic.