Opinion |

Trump’s Foreign Policy Heralds a Change for the Better for Israel

Even before he has entered the White House, Trump’s diplomatic contacts and his nominees signal the end of the Obama era of appeasing Iran - and that the Palestinian conflict is nearer resolution | Opinion

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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U.S. president-elect Donald Trump at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, December 9, 2016.
U.S. president-elect Donald Trump at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, December 9, 2016.Credit: Drew Angerer, AFP
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

We still await the formal transfer of power between Barack Obama and Donald Trump, but the harbingers of the new administration are already exerting a positive effect. 

First, on Iran, perhaps Israel's major qualm about the Obama White House’s policy, Trump's announced nominees assure a change of tone and substance. What unites Mike Pompeo as CIA Director, General (ret.) Mike Flynn as National Security adviser and General James Mattis as Defense Secretary is their healthy shared suspicion of the mullah regime in Tehran.

This trio has already alarmed veteran Israel basher and Iran apologist Mark Perry, a featured speaker at a 2014 National Summit to Reassess the U.S.-Israel "Special Relationship" (whose invitation among other pleasantries accused Israel of being "central to U.S. wars in the Middle East"), who recently wrote a piece for Politico entitled "James Mattis' 33 Year Old Grudge Against Iran". There, Perry warned that the Mattis appointment was dangerous because, as a quintessential marine, Mattis shared the leathernecks' unhealthy tendency to nurture a grudge. 

In Mattis’ case this meant the 1983 truck bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut killing 241 American servicemen. Strangely, the retired general also didn't like it when Iran trained and enabled Shi'ite militiamen in Iraq to kill American soldiers. Mattis also had the effrontery to consider ISIS an excuse for Iranian mischief and to identify Tehran as the main threat to the region. When Mattis persisted in pushing this view in the face of the new Obama orthodoxy that an engaged Iran was to be a pillar of regional stability, he was "quite rightly" sacked. 

Another helpful warning note came from former intelligence analyst Paul Pillar, who has questioned whether Iran even wanted a nuclear arsenal. He was sympathetic to Perry's grudge argument and he too warned that the trio of appointees could presage a disastrous war on Iran or, at the very least, sabotage the nuclear deal that was the Obama administration's legacy achievement.

Let’s examine these claims. Perry is partially correct that eventually enemies reconcile and move on from atrocities they sustained or committed, but that only occurs when a former enemy has renounced its previous odious and deadly policies. Barack Obama could visit Hiroshima and Japanese Prime Minister Shintaro Abe could visit Pearl Harbor 75 years after the day that will live on in infamy. The totally altered relationship between the two countries means that the U.S. could adopt a "forgive but not forget" attitude. 

But this burying the hatchet cannot be extended to Iran, a state that continues to use assassination as a tool of policy against foes such as Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon or Saudi diplomats in Washington D.C.

However, if people like Perry and Pillar are apprehensive that the era of appeasing Iran may be over, it is entirely possible that in Tehran they are getting the same message. This could instill a modicum of caution in the behavior of Ayatollah Khamenei and Qassem Khamenei that could mitigate the intoxicating stimulant of Assad's Carthaginian victory in Syria. 

While Trump's new Iran policy is an obvious change for the better, perhaps the most encouraging sign from Trump was the telephone call to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing that rocked the foreign policy establishment

It is not that Israel regards Beijing as a mortal enemy the way it regards the Tehran regime; it was the thinking behind the call. Originally equated with Trump's undisciplined middle-of-the-night tweeting, it soon emerged that the demarche was weeks in the planning. The Chinese government appears to have abandoned the policy of a "peaceful rising" and has instead assertively made extravagant territorial demands in the South China Sea. By initiating the call to Taiwan and addressing Ing as president, Trump essentially signaled to the People's Republic that its revisionist behavior can cut both ways. It could even lead to an American decision to reconsider its One China policy that has been in place since 1979, when China and the U.S. reached out to each other to counteract an aggressive Soviet Union. 

This is the long awaited reincarnation of Reaganism in foreign policy. Before Reagan, the rules of containment were that the U.S. would try to prevent further Soviet advances, but where Communism had already triumphed, that victory was presumed irreversible. Reagan challenged the assumption that the West always had to play defense and allow the Soviet Union to enjoy the initiative. He aided guerrilla movements in Communist-controlled countries to show that two could play the war of national liberation game.

This has corollaries for our relations with the Palestinians. Employing the "what is mine is mine and what is yours" is a negotiable strategy; the Palestinian side has resisted meaningful negotiations that could provide closure to the conflict. The not-unreasonable Palestinian assumption was that the next offer from Israel would always be better than the last one, and if Israel would not bend, international gang tackling could bring Jerusalem to its knees. 

Under a Trump administration that will not show Israel a yellow card every time it announces new construction in the liberated territories the Palestinians may be forced to reconsider their strategy. The ultimate wake-up call would be a redemption of Trump's election pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. This would enable the new president to perhaps achieve the ultimate deal in our region, once he had disabused the Palestinians of the notion that time is on their side.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.