Opinion

How Far Will Trump's Unpredictability Disrupt American Policy on Israel?

Trump is a wild card on Middle East issues. But if his pro-settler advisors hold sway, Democrats must sharpen their message and keep daylight between themselves and the president.

U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016.
U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, March 21, 2016. AFP

The shocking victory of Donald Trump in the American presidential election will reverberate around the world. One place where those reverberations will be felt particularly keenly is Israel. The biggest problem is that no one knows what they will look like.

Trump is a true wild card in a way no other incoming president has ever been, especially on foreign policy. He has said a lot of things on the campaign trail, but none of it comes together into any kind of coherent policy, strategy or even a basic direction. We know very little about what he might do.

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From 'neutral' to pro-settler advisors

When it comes to Israel, Trump initially indicated that he wanted to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians and that he wanted to be “sort of neutral.” Then, when he decided to go after the conservative Jewish vote, he engaged his current advisors,who align themselves with the settler movement.

At that point, Trump moved all the way to Kiryat Arba. He has vowed to police the Iran nuclear agreement with an eye toward voiding it in the hope that Iran will renegotiate it; encouraged Israel to build more settlements;  and said he would move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Of course, such promises are easy to make and much harder to keep. Many presidential candidates have vowed to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but none have seriously pursued it once in office. So, while we do know that Trump’s campaign advisers on Israel – Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman – hold views that are largely in line with Naftali Bennett’s right-wing nationalist Habayit Hayehudi party, we don’t know what role they will play in his presidency or who else might be advising a President Trump.

All of this is obviously troubling to supporters of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians, but is also very likely to be worrying to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well.

Trump met with Netanyahu during his visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly in September. The meeting reportedly went well, and Trump surely told Netanyahu much of what he wanted to hear.

But while Netanyahu is certainly on board with the Republican Party, his ideological fellow travelers in the party have been traditional conservatives and, especially, the neoconservative wing that flourished under President George W. Bush. Trump’s brand of conservatism leans much more heavily toward populism and isolationism. When that is added to Trump’s unpredictability, it is cause for concern even for Netanyahu. He simply can’t be sure what Trump will do.

No hope for the peace process

A Trump presidency is certain to mean there is no hope for any sort of peace process. Senate Democrats will be led by Chuck Schumer of New York, who was one of the Democrats who opposed President Obama on the Iran deal. With both the House of Representatives and the Senate remaining in Republican hands, and Schumer leading the opposition, the Congressional leadership will be more united in its support of Netanyahu than it has been under Obama.

It’s true that Trump has alienated many Republicans during his campaign. But he will work to re-unite the party and, whether he is successful or not, Israel will be the one place he is sure to be able to do that. A similar dynamic will exist between the parties in the Senate, where Schumer, who has a well-earned reputation as someone who communicates very well across the aisle, will be able to count on the issue of Israel as one place he and Senate Republicans can find common ground.

Is there room for hope? Yes.

A new, sharper Democratic line on Israel

The hope will lie in the response within the Democratic Party to this resounding defeat. As many have pointed out, there is a profound disconnect between the rank and file of the party and its elites. A similar disconnect within the Republican Party led to Trump’s rise. While policy toward Israel is not the most important point of disconnect, it is one that has been visible during both of the last two presidential campaigns.

Most Democratic voters, including Jews, want the United States to act in an even-handed manner with Israel and the Palestinians. They want America to ensure Israel’s security, but not to simply enable it to continue its occupation of the West Bank and the siege on Gaza indefinitely. This will be one of the issues party activists will try to advance to bring the Democratic party into line with its stated ideals, and, thereby, make it a party that can promise and deliver real change.

The message the Democrats need to hear from Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Donald Trump’s triumph is that Americans, whatever their party affiliation, are no longer willing to tolerate the same old politics. The right brought a man to power who spoke to their aspirations and to their view of what needs to be done. The Democrats must do the same for their constituents. That was the story of Bernie Sanders’ surprising success and the story of Hillary Clinton’s demise.

Democratic policy on Israel: Not business as usual

Israel policy is a part of that. We will now have a president who believes that West Bank settlements are on an equal footing with Tel Aviv and who wants to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. The Democrats need to come back with a candidate who, among many other things, supports declaring settlements illegal under international law, is willing to press Israel as hard as it does the Palestinians, and is unwilling to shield Israel from the consequences of its own policy decisions, while maintaining an absolute commitment to Israel’s security.

The Democrats need to do that because most Democrats want to see a secure Israel that is at peace with the Palestinians, not depriving millions of them of their basic rights. Most Democrats want to see the United States working to bring that future about, not enabling the intransigence of either side.

Democrats will not be able to continue to play politics as usual and hope to remain relevant. This election proved that very powerfully. And, while foreign policy in general, much less Israel policy in particular, will not be the top priority for those Democratic voters, it is going to be very much on the agenda. And, given the amount of damage Trump can do from the Oval Office, that sort of change is going to be desperately needed, in Israel as well as in the United States.