At the halfway mark of President Donald Trump’s term in office, one can ascertain that with respect to Israel he is a friend in gestures, but hostile in deeds.
Trump's intention to withdraw 7,000 American soldiers from Afghanistan and reach an agreement with the Taliban, in complete opposition to the opinion of his former secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, is a stark example of the geostrategic threat he is creating for Israel by abandoning the region. It’s hard to find someone whose words are cheaper than those of the man who is supposed to be the leader of the free world and to whom gestures have no value if they don’t entail financial gain.
This disposition was revealed at Trump's first official meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where he refrained from speaking of a Palestinian state and said that he would support any solution, either one state or two states. It then came through in his administration’s treatment of the occupied territories in official reports, in his representatives’ claims that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace and of course in his purely symbolic gesture of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem.
With unbelievable lightness, Trump canceled the activity of the the US Agency for International Development, the State Department’s foreign aid arm, in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, dramatically decreased aid budgets for the Palestinians, halted financial support for the United Nations Relief and Works Administration and abandoned UNESCO for its problematic decisions on Israel. These moves saved money, decreasing his nation’s deficit, and found favor in the eyes of both the Israeli and the American right, which revere him. What could be better than saving money and winning applause from evangelicals?
Israel gives Trump plenty of opportunities to make such futile gestures, like its request for American recognition for the annexation of the Golan Heights, and he is certainly grateful for them. One can safely assume that before Israeli elections on April 9 he will respond on the Golan request to the sound of the right rejoicing, without one stone moving on the Golan and with the statement itself allowing Israeli right- or left-wing governments to forgo negotiating peace with Syria or agreeing to retreat from the territory, moves they have already sworn they would never make.
The game of the “deal of the century” is also part of the American president's policy of gestures. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians has been on his agenda since his campaign, especially because he wants to prove to himself and the world that he can resolve problems for which his predecessors failed to find solutions. Appointing inexperienced and unknowledgeable people to this task, like Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and adviser, and asserting that if they fail, no one can solve the problem, reflect the shallowness and carelessness that characterize all of his decisions. He toys with the thought that his administration could indeed resolve the longest-running international conflict since the World War II, but he has no drive, no fire in his belly, to do so.
According to leaks from people Trump appointed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seems that from the outset they seriously considered a miraculous solution that would attack the problem from different (primarily economic) angles, bypass the problem of Jerusalem and remove the Palestinian refugee problem from the agenda. Now, however, they have moved much closer to the Clinton parameters and the Geneva initiative than to solutions that bypass sticking points.
Today the plan has become a kind of plaything for Trump. More than four months ago, on Sept. 26, he promised to present his proposal within “two, three or four months.” Now he doesn’t even bother to explain why he hasn't, but it’s clear that he doesn’t want to embarrass Netanyahu, who would have to reject any plan that entails dividing the land. Thus, the non-presentation of the plan has also become a gesture toward Israel.
On the other hand, the real damage done to Israel from isolationist US policies is quite clear. The presence of Uncle Sam’s soldiers in Syria is of geostrategic significance for Israel. The 2,000 soldiers Trump is withdrawing from Syria could have been left there for a while. This is not only because the Islamic State, contrary to Trump's pronouncements, has not been defeated, but also because the US presence on Syrian territory could help in arriving at a comprehensive agreement to calm the region. Such a deal could include Iran, Syria and perhaps even Hezbollah, an arrangement Israel very much needs. If Trump brings home American soldiers, he’ll relinquish an important card to the Russian-Iranian side even before trying to reach an arrangement, thus leaving Israel on its own to face elements that threaten it.
The way in which Trump intends to leave Afghanistan also weakens Israel. It paints the United States as a power retreating without making a serious effort to obtain the desired results. If one of the pillars of Israel’s defense policy is US backing, it is clear to Israel’s enemies, and others, that today that support is unreliable and that Israel now stands on its own to face down various threats.
The 17-year-old war in Afghanistan, the United States’ longest, is concluding with the return of the Taliban to power. The draft agreement between the Americans and the movement does not prevent the Taliban from ousting women from schools and hospitals, and it lacks any mention of democratization or development. The United States would leave with its tail between its legs. Meanwhile in Washington, Trump’s inner circle is once again talking about abandoning NATO after the “success” Trump achieved in his public support of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Thus, American isolationism is causing direct damage to Israel’s strategic standing. The way in which the United States is retreating from Syria and Afghanistan is harming it directly and indirectly. The severing of the economic and security axis between the United States and Europe could weaken the entire West, including Israel. When Trump gives the Netanyahu government “sweets” in the form of damage to the only Palestinian partner it has or orchestrates a ceremony to move the US Embassy, Israelis wipe the spit off their faces and bless the rain.
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