By Jack Detsch December 12, 2017
Benjamin Netanyahu has found a kindred spirit in Donald Trump.
Whether that will leave Israel better off is a different matter.
The Israeli prime minister scored a major victory when the US president declared Dec. 6 that he was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, a priority for both Trump's Christian evangelical base and right-wing Jewish donors close to Netanyahu. The prime minister immediately applauded the move, but spent the following days trying to convince Arab and European critics of the move that it's not a critical blow to mideast peace talks and US influence in the region.
"Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for 70 years," Netanyahu said at a press conference Monday with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. "I think what President Trump has done is put facts squarely on the table. Peace is based on reality. Peace is based on recognizing reality."
Trump's decision on Jerusalem mirrors his hawkish rhetoric on Iran, another touchy subject where the US president's willingness to try a new approach carries the potential for both great risk and reward for Israel.
Netanyahu had a famously adversarial relationship with President Barack Obama, going so far as to personally lobby the Republican-dominated Congress to nix his signature nuclear deal with Iran. In turn, the former US president broke with decades of bipartisan precedent by allowing the UN Security Council to censure Israel over its settlement expansion for the first time in almost four decades.
Still, US military support for Israel reached new heights under Trump's Democratic predecessor, culminating with the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets as well as bunker-busting bombs that had been denied by the George W. Bush administration. Last year, the United States signed a $38 billion, 10-year security assistance memorandum of understanding with Israel — 22.5% larger than the current one — all but guaranteeing that Israel will remain the largest beneficiary of US military aid for the foreseeable future.
Trump by contrast campaigned on the promise that his presidency would brook no daylight with Israel, even as his lofty campaign promises have repeatedly clashed with US national security interests.
After denouncing the UN vote as a “big loss” for Israel, Trump picked bankruptcy lawyer and Bet El settlement activist David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel. He has tasked his son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner with negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians. And for his envoy to the UN he named pro-Israel hawk Nikki Haley, who wasted no time forcing the retraction of a report accusing Israel of “apartheid” and is now trying to deal a death blow to the UN Human Rights Council’s pending blacklist of businesses operating in Israeli settlements.
“Israelis have experienced firsthand the hatred and terror of radical violence,” Trump said in May when he stopped by Jerusalem as part of his first foreign trip. “Not with Donald J. Trump, believe me.”
And yet Rex Tillerson’s State Department continued to fault Israeli settlement construction as a contributing factor to Palestinian violence in this year’s annual report on terrorism. More worryingly for Israel, Trump’s commitment to countering the Iranian threat remains largely untested, despite the announcement of a new strategy last month aimed at rolling back Tehran's influence.
The US president has repeatedly suggested that he wants to pull out of the nuclear deal and last month declined to certify that it meets congressional requirements, thus empowering lawmakers to try to toughen the agreement. Meanwhile, Haley has worked with Israel to demand that the UN mission in southern Lebanon take on Hezbollah’s weapons stockpiles as part as its mission.
But even as the United States takes on the Iranian-backed militia in Lebanon, Israel is fretting that Trump’s “America First” policy to defeat the Islamic State and quickly pull out of neighboring Syria could leave a potent foe on Israel’s doorstep. Already, the State Department has agreed to cease-fire zones along the border negotiated between Russia, Iran and Turkey, leaving the fate of Iranian proxy forces unresolved.
“Syria is a source of real concern” for the Israelis, former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro told Al-Monitor. “If there’s an expectation that the US is going to engage in a much more extensive and broader military campaign to be the counterweight for Iranian gains in Syrian territory, that’s where they'll be frustrated.”
Netanyahu tried to hammer home the point when he met with Trump on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting in mid-September, telling the US president that he welcomed Trump’s commitment “to roll back Iran's growing aggression in the region, especially in Syria.”
Though the extent of Iran’s troop deployments to the country is kept secret, military experts estimate that some 2,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were stationed there at the beginning of the conflict, and casualties appear to be continually mounting. That leaves Israel in a tough spot amid growing international calls to put an end to a conflict that has dragged on for more than six years.
“There is Israeli concern about Iran operating so close to its border, that’s absolutely legitimate,” said Dylan Williams, the vice president of the liberal advocacy group J Street. “At the same time, Israel could put itself in a very difficult position if it’s opposing incremental diplomatic steps to contain or end the conflict there on the basis that those agreements don’t provide a comprehensive solution to the problem of Iranian influence.”
Further complicating the issue, Trump’s rhetoric and policies have further splintered the historic bipartisan support for pro-Israel policies already eroded by the bitter 2015 vote on the Iran deal.
Ambassador Friedman’s nomination was opposed by a record 46 Democrats because of his support for settlements and harsh words against left-leaning US Jews. And three major Jewish denominations boycotted Trump‘s annual call for the High Holy Days on Sept. 15 because of the president’s perceived failure to unequivocally denounce a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“This is one of the saddest phenomena of American politics now that the liberal elements of the American Jewish population have basically become anti-Israeli,” former Trump deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka told the right-wing radio host Michael Savage after his departure from the White House. “It’s the greatest saddest paradox.”
Left-wing Jews in turn argue that it is right-wing policies that are driving Israel toward disaster.
That partisan divide in turn has given liberal Democrats more space to question pro-Israel legislation. After the American Civil Liberties Union raised questions about the latest bill targeting the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, several Democratic senators withheld their support despite pressure from lobby groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
While AIPAC remains the main pro-Israel lobby, spending $4.6 million in 2016 on lobbying and congressional trips to the Holy Land, recent years have also seen a proliferation of other actors on the federal scene. For example, the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, the lobbying arm of the decade-old Israeli-American Council representing the half-million Israelis living in the United States, only hired Greenberg Traurig to lobby Congress on pro-Israel issues in December 2016 (the firm was paid $30,000 before the contract was terminated in February).
Earlier this year, the coalition, which is largely bankrolled by casino magnate and Republican patron Sheldon Adelson, registered as a lobbyist under its own name. The group spent $220,000 in the first half of 2017 on congressional lobbying by two registered agents, Dillon Hosier and former AIPAC lobbyist Abigail Cable.
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