The agreement renewing U.S. military assistance to Israel (MOU) – 38 billion dollars over the next decade, starting at the end of 2018 – was signed in the closing days of the Obama administration. Despite this profound testimony to the depth of relations between the two countries, the Obama years also included worrying trends vis-a-vis the future of U.S.-Israel relations, in regard to the depth of bi-partisan support for Israel and the changes brought by a foreign policy doctrine that could harm Israel’s interests.
Unlike his predecessor, President Trump is seen by Israel as a loyal and warm friend. Thus, Israel has an opportunity to correct the problems that arose during the Obama presidency and “turn a new page” in its relationship with the United States – its most significant and only true ally.
Trump’s visit to Israel very early in his presidency, and the level of friendship he exhibited, signaled a genuinely positive turn. However, despite the warm atmosphere during the visit, it is hard to ignore that the main points of strategic interest for Israel – the nuclear agreement with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the future of Syria – could spark disagreements down the road. This is due to both conflict interests and the president’s unpredictable nature. An increase in tensions between the two countries could weigh heavily on American Jews, 70 percent of whom voted for Hillary Clinton and reject Trump’s policy path. This puts them between a rock and a hard place, and could erode the resilience of the Jerusalem – Washington – U.S. Jewry triangular relationship, a bedrock of Israel and the Jewish people’s strength.
Israel also faces a dilemma as to how much it should openly identify with the new president and the sentiments and ethos that brought him to power. The American Jewish community’s reservations about the president sharpen how sensitive this dilemma is. Given the polarizing trends within the U.S., the challenge for Israel to maintain bi-partisan support and its connection with American Jews only increases. Relatedly, one cannot ignore the warnings issued by some of Israel’s best friends within the American Jewish community following the Israeli government’s decisions regarding the Western Wall (Kotel) and conversion bill. According to these voices, Israel could alienate many of its Jewish supporters, erode their commitment to Israel, and thus cause great long-term harm to Israel’s strategic interests.
The geopolitical reality presents President Trump with a series of strategic dilemmas, some directly relating to Israel’s security interests:
- The Regional system: Will the understanding that the Middle East is of dwindling importance to the U.S. also define the Trump administration’s foreign policy? Will the U.S. allow Russia to become a key player that fills the vacuum it created in the Middle East? Does the U.S. intend to rebuild the trust it lost with many in the region, and if so how? Will the U.S. invest resources in order to step up the momentum of the relations forming between Israel and the moderate Sunni states?
- The Iranian challenge: What will the fate of the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) be? Despite his campaign promise to “rip up” the agreement, Trump authorized (July 17, 2017) Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement and, therefore, allowed the continued easing of nuclear program related sanctions. Will the U.S. continue in this direction given Iran’s growing regional subversion and the strong public positions Trump has taken against Iran? How will Washington respond to Iran’s provocative activity in areas not mentioned in the nuclear agreement: regional subversion, support for terror groups, and continued development of ballistic missiles?
- The future of Syria and Iraq: Will the U.S. be dominant in shaping Syria’s future so that it does not become a forward base for Iran and anti-Israel jihadists? Will the U.S. play a lead role in determining what the day after ISIS’ will look like? Will the U.S. allow Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Hezbollah to shape the future of Syria and Iraq? Will the U.S. allow Iran to establish a land corridor through Syria to the Mediterranean? Will the U.S. allow those forces beholden to Iran to take up positions on Israel’s border in the Golan?
- The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Will the U.S. continue to take the lead in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or will it recoil from the difficulties it encounters and acquiesce to “internationalizing” the efforts to find a solution to the conflict? And if it does persist, what sort of diplomatic process will it shape and lead? Will President’ Trump’s ambition to broker the “ultimate deal” bring pressure to bear on Israel should there be disagreements over core issues of a final status agreement? How will the American administration prepare for the expected leadership change within the Palestinian Authority?
The list of challenges mentioned (a more detailed discussion follows below) is, of course, partial. The inability to assess the American president’s moves as the logical outcome of a thought out and coherent foreign policy doctrine frustrates even the best analysts. Some claim that Trump’s interest in foreign affairs will wane, particularly with respect to the Middle East. They believe that U.S. involvement in the international arena will rise and fall according to businesslike considerations of profit and loss. Trump, who they predict will become increasingly disappointed by the lack of quick results on the global stage, may prefer to direct his energies to more domestic challenges: gaining legislative achievements at home, and fending off the repeated attacks against him.
Other commentators dismiss this forecast and argue that Trump cannot disconnect from international affairs, especially the Middle East, due to the inherent potential it would have to create global instability, harm U.S. interests, instigate war, or cause a global economic crisis.
The coming months will show the extent to which Trump’s approach to issues of importance to Israel differs from that of his predecessor. Despite the friendship and warmth Trump has exhibited toward Israel, the true test will likely have less to do with mere rhetoric but rather on practical matters. Jerusalem’s ability to manage an ongoing strategic dialogue with the Trump administration that produces positive practical results will largely depend on Israel’s willingness to fulfill Washington’s expectations, even if only partly.
In this regard, one cannot underestimate the impact of the polarizing processes and changes underway in the United States, and how they may affect American public opinion vis-a-vis Israel. In recent years, Israel has become an increasingly partisan issue. The Pew Research Center determined that the American public largely supports Israel in the Palestinian conflict, (54 percent versus 19 percent for the Palestinians). However, support for Israel decreases significantly within the liberal wing of the Democratic Party where 40 percent support the Palestinians versus 33 percent for Israel. Support for the Palestinian side within the Democratic Party has nearly doubled since 2014 (a jump from 21 to 40 percent) – and is gaining steam.12