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Does Trump's 'America First' approach bode ill for Israel?

It is unclear whether US President Donald Trump will see in his new isolationist strategy an interest for the United States to mediate between Israel and its neighbors.
People walk past signs bearing the name of U.S. President-elect Republican Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Israel November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner  - RTX2TLRV

“He used every considerable means and influence of the United States to help us. We owe him a special measure of gratitude. This attests to the strong alliance between Israel and the United States. This alliance between Israel and the United States is especially important in these times of political storms and upheavals in the Middle East.” Guess who made these comments and to whom they were directed.

Hard to believe, but these warm words of gratitude were uttered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They were directed at Barack Obama, the same American president who, on the day he vacated the Oval Office for Donald Trump, elicited a huge sigh of relief from Netanyahu. The prime minister had expressed his heartfelt thanks to Obama on Sept. 10, 2011, a day after an enraged mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

“I asked for his help,” Netanyahu declared at the time. “This was a decisive and fateful moment.” Obama, he went on to say, promised he would do everything in his power to save the six besieged embassy staff, “and he did.” A senior Israeli official involved in managing the crisis said Obama’s personal intervention had a significant impact on the Egyptians' quick response to extricate the Israelis, “because we were just minutes away from tragedy.”

True, Obama did not relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — and at the moment, Trump isn’t rushing to make good on his promise to do so, either — and Obama did not lash out at Muslims. He understood that when, to quote Netanyahu, “political storms and upheavals” are shaking the Middle East, a responsible American president is not entitled to sit around doing nothing. Unfortunately (but in the eyes of Jewish and Muslim rejecters of peace fortunately), Obama’s efforts to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not yield results. Admittedly, Obama did not, like Trump, name an enthusiastic advocate of Israel’s West Bank settlement enterprise such as David Friedman to represent the United States in Tel Aviv. Instead, he only sent Israel an aid package worth billions of dollars to fund sophisticated defense equipment. Granted, Obama did not follow Netanyahu’s orders to tighten sanctions on Iran, but in professional circles, including in Israel, there is broad agreement that the nuclear deal with Tehran is proving to be successful.

Netanyahu will have to work hard to convince Trump that confronting Tehran — rejecting the deal the United States reached together with Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China and Germany and in the process losing out on lucrative opportunities for American business — is indeed a US interest. Trump’s executive order abandoning the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership, turning his back on such important allies as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, could signal that his egocentrism and isolationism are being translated into US foreign policy. If this move reflects Trump's so-called America First approach, Israel should hope that he considers engagement in the Middle East an integral part of this policy. Either way, awareness is taking root that the United States is being led by a businessman who is alienated by anything he does not perceive as serving his country’s economic interests. Israel and some of its neighbors in the region — with Egypt and Jordan at the forefront — have good reason for concern.

For almost the entirety of Israel’s existence, since President Harry Truman recognized it upon its declaration as a state in 1948, Jerusalem has been perceived in the eyes of the Arab world as a necessary station on the road to Washington. On the other hand, the 1956 Sinai War between Israel and Egypt showed Arab states the power of quite moderate US pressure, when President Dwight Eisenhower crushed in one fell swoop Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s dream of a “Third Kingdom of Israel” and forced Israel to withdraw from the territories it had occupied. The arms airlift dispatched by President Richard Nixon to Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War attested to the US commitment to Israel’s security, and the speed with which Yitzhak Rabin's first government signed the disengagement agreement with Egypt and Syria in the mid-1970s showed the neighbors what happens when Washington threatens to reassess its relationship with Israel.

Boutrous Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian minister of state under President Anwar Sadat, told me a few years ago that the main driver behind Sadat's reaching a peace agreement with Israel was his desire to get closer to the United States and obtain economic aid to extricate his country from its economic straits. Indeed, President Jimmy Carter, bringing to bear the full weight and prestige of the presidency to get Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David to talk peace, rewarded Egypt generously. Since signing the peace agreement with Israel in 1979, Egypt has been receiving some $1.5 billion annually (more than $50 billion in total) from the United States. The agreement stood Israel in good stead even in its darkest periods, contending with two military campaigns in Lebanon and two intifadas. Fear that the United States would punish Egypt for violating the peace agreement contributed to the hands-off policy toward the pact by the Islamist government of President Mohammed Morsi.

The energetic involvement of the Ronald Reagan administration was behind the Palestinian National Council's historic decision on Nov. 15, 1988, to halt armed struggle against Israel, to recognize UN Security Council Resolution 242 and to adopt the two-state approach. Retired US diplomat Robert Pelletreau, who conducted contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization at the time, told me in 2005 that he is convinced the Palestinian desire to get into the United States' good graces is what motivated PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to push through the decision. The Palestinians began reaping the dividends after signing the Oslo Accord with Israel in the 1990s.

The conference of donor states organized by President Bill Clinton funnels to the Palestinian Authority’s dwindling coffers about 30% of its annual budget. The United States alone has so far contributed in this way more than $5 billion to Palestinian autonomy. The Palestinians are not walking away from their agreements with Israel, despite the diplomatic freeze and Israeli settlement construction, for fear that the United States will turn off the cash faucet, among other things. The United States also played an important role in contacts on peace with Jordan. A promise by Rabin that he would ask Clinton to forgive the Hashemite kingdom’s $700 million debt to the United States motivated King Hussein to sign the 1994 peace agreement with Israel. Indeed, the pact resulted in an increase of US aid to Jordan, up to $1 billion annually.

Before Netanyahu heads to Washington in February, he would do well to imagine what Israel would have looked like today without US involvement in the conflict with its neighbors. Maybe this will convince him to implore his host at the White House not to leave us alone.

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