Last week Donald Trump won the American presidency after one of the most bitterly-fought and divisive campaigns in living memory. His blunt style and populist rhetoric, which included pejorative references to Muslims, Mexicans and women, have rightly received censure from many quarters. There were justified accusations that he did little to disavow support from nationalist and anti-Semitic groups.
With these concerns in mind, many are asking how Trump will view Israel and the wider problems in the Middle East. This is hard to answer, in part because he has shifted his position on many issues and lacks political or military experience to fall back on. Nonetheless, he has made a number of policy pledges that may give some indication of his thinking.
At a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committeein March, he declared that a Trump administration would shift the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, having previously declined to make any such commitment in the primaries.
David Friedman, Trump’s Middle East policy advisor, has said that “there is every intention to keep” the pledge. However, such presidential promises are as common as the failure to fulfil them, as Israeli governments know very well.
Trump also described the Iranian nuclear accord, signed last year, as the “worst deal ever negotiated” but flipped between calling for its renegotiation and annulment. One of his advisors, Walid Phares, has said that the president is more likely to “review it, send it to Congress, demand from the Iranians to restore a few issues or change a few issues”.
This is more feasible than dismantling it, if only because the latter option would trigger a major diplomatic spat with America’s allies, including Russia. The Israelis would surely welcome a suitable revision, however.
There have been warm overtures towards Jerusalem, too. In his first interview since winning the election, Trump offered a paean to Israel, describing it as ‘the one true democracy and defender of human rights in the Middle East and a beacon of hope to countless people”.
He has indicated his administration could play “a significant role in helping the parties to achieve a just, lasting peace”, although one “negotiated between the parties themselves, and not imposed on them”. This may suggest a less interventionist role than that pursued by Obama, although Trump was short on policy detail. Given the PA’s refusal to negotiate with Jerusalem, and the threat of Hamas, there is unlikely to be significant shift on the ground.
There is one other important difference in approach suggested by Jason Greenblatt, one of Trump’s top advisors. Greenblatt said it was “certainly not Mr Trump’s view that settlement activity should be condemned and that it is an obstacle to peace”. This marks a major break with Obama for whom settlement restriction was of considerable importance.
But while there are some reasons to think Trump might be good for Israel, there are also warning signs. His ‘America first’ approach and his warmth towards President Putin have unnerved key allies around the world. In July, he suggested that in the event of a Russian attack on the Baltic states in NATO, American support would be conditional on whether they have “fulfilled their obligations to us”.
Unravelling American internationalism is dangerous, given that the US has long been a lynchpin of global security. Some have asked whether the refusal to automatically endorse alliance commitments will extend to Israel, too.
Trump’s stated willingness to defeat ISIS will synchronise with Israeli interests. But he has signalled that he will back Assad and Moscow in defeating the jihadists, suggesting a more isolationist policy . This is bad news for Israel for it would mean giving Assad’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah, free rein in the country. The arc of Shia terror extending from Tehran to Beirut is arguably a greater threat to Israel than ISIS.
Of course, events in the Middle East often trigger unexpected shifts in policy, as President Bush Jr discovered in 2001. Moreover, Trump is in many ways an unpredictable political actor. Overall, there are enough reasons for Israel, and other US allies, to look cautiously at the White House next January.