Opinion

Israel Will Pay for Its Too-tight Embrace of Donald Trump

The Israeli public and its leaders are in love with Trump. That drunken over-identification with a president actively seeking the demise of a liberal world order does not serve longer-term Israeli interests at all

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during Trump’s visit to Israel. Jerusalem, May 22, 2017.
מארק ישראל סלם

In the first 18 months of his administration, U.S. President Donald Trump has challenged international conventions, both through his personal conduct and in his disregard of principles that have guided the United States since the end of World War II.

Trump’s conduct and choices, even in areas that do not seem to have direct bearing on Israel, have implications for Israel. This invites the question whether the Israeli government’s strong connection with the administration and some of its policies serve Israel’s long term interests. 

A recent Peace Index survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 74 per cent of Jewish Israelis, and 94.5 per cent of Israeli Arabs, believe that Israel’s interests are important or very important to Trump and 67 percent think that Trump’s attitude to Israel will continue to be friendly.

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Clearly the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem, the exit from the nuclear deal with Iran, the administration’s staunch support for Israel in the United Nations, the proximity to Israeli terms in the conflict with the Palestinians, and the sharp differences between these positions and President Barack Obama’s policies have generated this very positive attitude toward Trump. 

At the same time, Israeli public support for Trump is very unusual in comparison with public opinion — and views among the political leaderships — in much of the West. 

Similarly, Trump’s attitude to Israel is unusual in comparison to his attitude to other traditional Western allies, whom he has been wont to scorn and criticize. He has questioned U.S. support and commitment to their security, and is reluctant to invest resources in strong relations. 

Israel, however, which receives the most U.S. security assistance, is treated differently. Trump’s expressions of appreciation for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complement hostility and criticism toward leaders of democratic states and praise of traditional United States adversaries and authoritarian leaders such as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping.

The motivations behind this special attitude toward Israel are somewhat elusive. 

Posters put up by a pro-Trump evangelical group near the relocated U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. May 11, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Traditionally, the special relationship between the United States and Israel was attributed to Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East and to its strategic value to the United States, as well as to the power of the American Jewish community — but what role do the two first considerations play with Trump, given his attitude to other foreign allies? 

The Jewish part of his family may play a role, as well as his intent on satisfying his evangelical base of support. Yet will that evangelical support really assure United States support for Israel in the long run? 

American support for Israel used to be bipartisan and spanned the entire Jewish community. Trump’s conduct and Republican/evangelical support for Israel has accelerated a troubling development that began during the Obama era. Israel has become a partisan issue identified with the Republican party, alienating important sectors of the Jewish community.

Even Trump’s policies in the Middle East do not necessarily serve Israel’s interests. 

His basic policy to minimize and eventually abolish American military intervention in the Middle East might have harmful repercussions when implemented in Syria, leaving Russia and Iran as the power brokers there. 

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It is doubtful whether Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian "deal of the century" will ultimately serve Israel’s national interest as a Jewish democratic state, assuming Israel wishes to maintain its identity and security. 

The closeness of the expressed positions of the administration to the positions of the current Israeli government foster a good feeling in Israel, but it prevents the United States from playing any material role in the Israeli-Palestinian political process, and in practice will only distance Israel further from any possible settlement.

If Iran survives the U.S. sanctions, which is highly likely, Israel will face the need (as in Syria) to deal alone with an Iran that is approaching a nuclear capability. 

Many have tried to understand what guides Trump’s policies. It is clear that he aims to fulfil the promises he declaimed during the election campaign and erase all traces of the Obama legacy. 

His policies are nationalistic, unilateral, and economically protectionist. In practice, he is destroying the "old order" that was characterized by multilateralism expressed by a United States commitment to a system of political, security, and economic institutions that were established after the Second World War under United States leadership.

To a great extent, this is what gave the democratic West the power to shape the rules of the game — which included human rights and protection of minorities — that have guided much of the international system in the last 70 years.

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According to Trump’s outlook, this "old order," which sees the world as a global community, should be replaced with the image of the world as a wrestling ring, in which every player acts to serve only narrow immediate interests without any consideration of interests of others. By adopting this view Trump is actually cooperating with Russia and China, who were not partners in designing the world order, but seek to design a multipolar world order with a weaker United States.

These Trump views were expressed during his last tour of Europe. He put a question mark on the American commitment to collective defense in the framework of NATO. He described the European Union as an enemy of the United States because of trade imbalances, and criticized British Prime Minister Theresa May for her failed Brexit policies that will hurt America’s willingness to conclude a separate trade agreement with Britain. Trump also initiated personal attacks on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her energy policies.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump at a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. July 16, 2018.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais,AP

During his meeting with Putin, he ignored the preparatory staff work and turned the meeting to a show of flattery of Putin, overlooking the blatant Russian intervention in the U.S. elections.

The damage that the president of the United States, the leading political, economic, and military Western power, causes to the unity of the West and the foundations of the liberal order and multilateralism in favor of a new populist/nationalist order, unilateralism, and economic protectionism does not serve Israeli interests. 

Ostensibly, a Trumpian world order might make some options available to Israel that were not possible in a multilateral environment. In a world in which every state cares only for its own interests, Israel can still cultivate its bilateral relationships and even join ad-hoc coalitions of states, and in any case its dependence on the United States will not change. 

The problem is that this relationship has turned into dependence on an impulsive president and the co-opted Republican Party. This is not a firm foundation for a long term relationship, and must be measured against the damage to Israel’s relations with the other Western countries and to its image in the eyes of the American public because of the close association with Trump.

Through most of its history it was clear to Israelis that Israel was a democratic state and part of the West — even though, from time to time, along with the gains and beneficial relations, it endured disappointment and frustration because of the way it was sometimes treated.

But these frustrations are not a sufficient reason to overly identify with a president who hurts the world order that was so good to Israel. The support in Israel for Trump is also not a reason for euphoria and a power drunkenness for which Israel will pay in the future. 

The special relationship with the United States is of the utmost importance, and Israel must maintain good relations with every U.S. administration. But there is a difference between maintaining good relations and identifying completely with this controversial administration’s policies and nature.

Shimon Stein, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Germany from 2001-08, is a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

Brig.Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Brom is a senior fellow at INSS.