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2018 Annual Assessment

The Trump administration’s friendliness toward Israel has been particularly conspicuous over the past year. Foremost was the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (December 6, 2017) and in the wake of this, on May 14, 2018, moving the embassy to Jerusalem (Guatemala and Paraguay have followed suit). Another meaningful highlight was Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear treaty with Iran (May 8, 2018). Thus, a strategic objective defined by Israel’s prime minister as having top priority was achieved. The American decision also demonstrates the extent to which Washington has adopted Israel’s standpoint on this issue. The United States did not hesitate to use its UN Security Council veto power (December 18, 2017) in defense of its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (14 of the 15 Council members supported the proposal submitted by Egypt). When America’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley announced the decision to leave the UN Human Rights Council (June 19, 2018), she explained: “In this past decade this organization has passed more resolutions to condemn Israel specifically than to condemn Syria, Iran and North Korea combined.”29 The deep support of Israel is also reflected in Vice-President Mike Pence’s visit to Israel, who announced before the Knesset (January 22, 2018) that “The United States will never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.” Netanyahu repaid him by saying that “no American vice-president has had a greater commitment to the Jewish people,” and that America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a historic decision that would find its rightful place among the formative decisions in the history of Zionism, decisions that include the Cyrus Declaration, the Balfour Declaration, and President Truman’s recognition of Israel.

Sweeping expressions of support for Israel are heard primarily on the Republican side of the American political map, but the picture is somewhat different on the Democrat side. The relationship with Israel has in recent years become a partisan issue in America. A Pew Research Center survey conducted at the beginning of the year found a widening gap between Republicans and Democrats when asked if they support Israel or the Palestinians. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans reported favoring Israel compared with only 27 percent among Democrats. While support for Israel is on the rise among Republicans, it is seeing a downward trajectory among Democrats. This reality poses a significant challenge to realizing the traditional strategic goal of successive Israeli governments: maintaining bipartisan support and safeguarding the support of American Jewry – particularly among younger Jews – most of whom (two-thirds or more) support the Democratic Party. This challenge is further complicated as the ideological rift in the U.S. grows and attitudes in response to Israeli political measures become a bone of contention between the parties. In U.S. liberal-intellectual circles there are growing doubts with respect to Israel’s loyalty to the values that have undergirded its special relationship with America. Their claims focus on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, discrimination against Israeli Arabs, suboptimal gender equality, the lack of separation between religion and state, the preference of Jewish considerations over democratic values, and more. On the other hand, support for Israel among Republicans is growing and claims that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict damages America’s interests or has eroded the values shared by the two countries are firmly rejected (in this context, it is significant to note the tremendous support Israel receives from U.S. Evangelical Christians, who also tend to support policies that favor the settlement of Greater Israel). In a polarized American reality, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain bi-partisan support for Israel; meanwhile, there is also a growing temptation in Israel to win immediate gains from the supporting (Republican) side while ignoring the price that might have to be paid in the longer term.

Concomitantly, one must be prepared for waning American willingness to continue in the role of the Middle East’s strategic cop. Such a development does not correspond with Israel’s interests, and obligates Israel to revise its expectations accordingly.