Global Affairs

Israel's ambivalence towards Trump embrace

PM Netanyahu's woes include the risks of being outflanked on the right by Trump's administration and a dangerous divide between Israeli and American Jews


LONDON • Of all the nations awaiting the inauguration of Mr Donald Trump's presidency, Israel has most reason to feel excited.

After all, the United States President-elect has frequently vowed to be "very good to Israel", proclaimed his intention to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and appointed a new ambassador whose determination to champion Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands is even stronger than that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Trump also enjoys more intimate links with the Jewish community. Ivanka, the elder daughter among his five children, converted to Judaism; Mr Jared Kushner, her husband and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, will soon become senior adviser to the new President.

And there is the personal friendship struck back in the 1980s between Mr Netanyahu and Fred Trump, the President-elect's now dead father.

Paradoxically, however, many of Israel's politicians remain ambivalent on the question of just how much of a benefit President Trump will prove to be for the Jewish state. Even Mr Netanyahu remains keen on maintaining a respectful distance; he apparently rejected personal entreaties from Mr Kushner to go to Washington for the inauguration on Friday. And for good reasons, since it is far from clear that a Trump White House will actually be good for Israel's long-term strategic interests.

There is no question that, on a purely personal level, Mr Netanyahu feels vindicated by Mr Trump's election. He always had a closer affinity to the Republicans in the US, despite the fact that more than 70 per cent of American Jews regularly vote for the Democrats.


But he had particularly bad relations with the outgoing Obama administration, where initial differences over how to deal with Iran's quest for nuclear weapons morphed into a more serious and personal disdain for a US president who Mr Netanyahu sees as, at best, a naive wimp.

But there is also no doubt that the Obama administration spent its last days in office taking potshots at Mr Netanyahu's government, and evidently enjoying the exercise.

It refused to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution which declared Israel's settlements on occupied Arab lands as illegal.

And US Secretary of State John Kerry recently delivered a lengthy speech in which the policies of Mr Netanyahu were torn to pieces.

All fairly inconsequential stuff, since Mr Obama can no longer influence events, but all intended to settle scores and reveal what the outgoing President really felt about the Israeli leader with whom he had the misfortune to work with.

In theory, all this is now history. Mr Trump has repeatedly blamed Palestinian leaders for the failure of the peace talks and expressed sympathy for Israel's refusal to make territorial compromises.

"I understand that, and I'm okay with that," Mr Trump said, to the undisguised delight of Mr Netanyahu.

The US President-elect also called for "taking out the families of terrorists" in the Middle East, a policy not that removed from the Israeli one of demolishing terrorists' homes. But beyond these superficially friendly noises, there are no compelling signs that a Trump presidency will offer Israel great advantages.

To start with, it's a myth that Israel fares much better with Republican presidents, as is widely assumed. After all, both Bush administrations were quite tough on Israel when it came to their opposition to settlements and, during the 1990s, US Secretary of State James Baker banned Mr Netanyahu from entering his office in the State Department.

Yet even if one assumes that Mr Trump is a different kind of Republican president, the advantages which Israel may derive remain more apparent than real.

Moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem will, theoretically, fulfil a longstanding Israeli objective of gaining recognition for its capital city. But as Israeli officials know only too well, such a move will also plunge the new US administration into an immediate confrontation with even moderate Arab states, which is not something that will advance Israel's objectives.

And although the Palestinians are divided and Mr Mahmoud Abbas, their 81-year-old leader, is ailing, a move of the embassy to Jerusalem could ignite a new intifada, a rebellion which nobody in the already war-torn region needs.

Also, what the Trump administration does not seem to realise is that Israel's domestic political landscape has undergone profound changes during the past few years. The total level of voters' support for the right-wing Israeli political parties on which Mr Netanyahu's coalition government depends has not changed much, but the myriad of small parties on the right are constantly getting more extreme and more fundamentalist in their religious outlook.

Mr Netanyahu's biggest domestic problem over the past few weeks was how to comply with a verdict of Israel's own Supreme Court, which declared a settlement was illegal because it was built on Palestinian land. By encouraging Israeli politicians to believe that it is fine to push further Jewish settlements on Palestinian territories, a Trump administration may end up outflanking Mr Netanyahu from the right.

The Israeli Prime Minister, who spent his life cultivating his image as a hardliner, suddenly risks appearing as a "softie", with disastrous consequences for Israel's internal policies.

Mr Trump's broader approach to the Middle East also risks creating further damage to Israel. The President-elect has shown no interest in cultivating relations with America's longstanding regional allies, especially the pro-Western Gulf monarchies.

Indeed, Mr Trump does not seem to get the very idea of alliances; he was just as dismissive of Arab allies as he was of the Europeans or the Japanese. But any neglect of the moderate Arab states will be a setback for Israel which, in the wake of the war in Syria, is secretly and quietly cooperating with the region's monarchies to stabilise the Middle East.

The same principle of perverse outcomes applies to Mr Trump's proposed policy on Iran. In theory, Mr Netanyahu should be delighted with Mr Trump's promise to repudiate the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration has concluded with Iran. But unless the Trump administration wants to get more involved in handling the Middle East, repudiating the Iran deal without an increased American footprint is, from Israel's perspective, the worst of all worlds, for it will embolden Iran to be even more irresponsible.

And Mr Trump's professed interest in forging a new partnership between the US and Russia does nothing to reassure the Israelis either. For although Mr Netanyahu frequently talks on the phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin and counts Mr Putin as one of the Jewish state's friends, the last thing any Israeli government wants to see is a deal which allows Russia to return to the Middle East as a permanent and influential strategic actor, able to play off Turkey against Iran, Saudi Arabia against both and Israel against everyone.

Ultimately, however, the biggest worry for Israel is that Mr Trump's presidency could widen the already dangerous divide between the Jews of Israel and the estimated five million Jews who are citizens of the US.

For most of Israel's existence, the support of American Jews was taken for granted, but this has frayed over the past decade and tempers can fray even further if the new President's son-in-law or Mr David Friedman, the new US Ambassador to Israel, is allowed to dictate American policy in the Middle East.

Both are on the extreme right of Jewish public opinion, and both seem determined to court further controversy.

Mr Friedman compared moderate American Jews who criticise Israel to guards in Nazi extermination camps, just about the most obscene thing one can utter in the Jewish community.

It is not surprising, therefore, that most Israeli politicians remain hesitant in embracing the incoming US administration, and are determined to wait until the policies of the new White House become clearer.

The arrival of Mr Trump in the White House is, from Israel's perspective, a reminder of that old adage that, with friends like these, no enemies are required.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2017, with the headline Israel's ambivalence towards Trump embrace. Subscribe