Think Trump is “good for Israel?” Look beyond the headlines

President Donald Trump signing a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights at the White House on March 25, 2019, joined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and other American and Israeli officials (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, official WH photo by Sheelah Craighead)
President Donald Trump signing a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights at the White House on March 25, 2019, joined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Mike Pence, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and other American and Israeli officials (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, official WH photo by Sheelah Craighead)

Many right-wing Jews who may cringe at Donald Trump’s antics and Tweets have been willing to overlook the shenanigans because of his policies related to Israel. I do not support Trump and I never have. I believe he will go down as one of the worst presidents in American history. However, I must admit that Trump has done some things that I think were correct, at least on the surface, when it comes to Israel. He moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, where it rightfully should be, and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the strategically important Golan Heights. Trump got tough on the often antisemitic Palestinian Authority. He withdrew the United States from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Administration officials played a role in the recent normalization of ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and at least tried to put forward an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan (albeit one that is deeply flawed, one-sided, and impractical). But do these headlines really tell the whole story? Is Trump actually the “most pro-Israel president ever” as he and his supporters claim? 

Upon closer inspection, nearly every single one of Trump’s signature “pro-Israel” moves fall into one of three categories: domestic political standing and seeking re-election; hatred for anything done by his predecessor, Barack Obama; and desire to sign elusive defense and arms deals worth billions with the Gulf Arab states. None of this screams real commitment to the safety and security of the Jewish state or the importance of a robust and bipartisan U.S.-Israel relationship. 

Trump’s support among white Evangelicals has been well documented, and his desire to appease them has also animated much of his Israel policy. The 2018 decision to finally move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (as mandated by the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate but also included renewable six month waivers that every president from Bill Clinton to Trump invoked to delay the move on national security grounds) was done for domestic political considerations. Trump recently said as much at a campaign rally in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on August 17, 2020, declaring “we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem,” and “that’s for the evangelicals” (no, Mr. President, you did not move Israel’s capital, just the American embassy to said capital, but I digress). 

Trump’s March 2019 proclamation on American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights has had little significance on the ground but was symbolic nonetheless. It recognized the security threats Israel faces from southern Syria and noted “any possible future peace agreement in the region must account for Israel’s need to protect itself from Syria and other regional threats.” Israel captured the territory from Syria during the Six Day War. Its strategic importance (not to mention thousands of years of Jewish history) make it one area of wide consensus among Israelis across much of the political spectrum: the Golan Heights are part and parcel of Israel. This has not precluded Israeli prime ministers, including Benjamin Netanyahu, from entering secret (and sometimes not so secret) negotiations with Syria over returning the territory, but that is entirely unrealistic now given the devastation of the Syrian Civil War and presence of Iranian-backed proxies just a few miles from the Golan. The United States should see the situation as it is, and even a symbolic recognition of Israeli control is outwardly a positive and welcomed in many pro-Israel circles. 

Notwithstanding this often heralded move, does anyone think Trump really understands the defensive, strategic, and historical value of the Golan for Israel? Imagine the following scenario, unlikely as it may sound. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad calls up his close ally Vladimir Putin. The Syrian head of state explains to his Russian counterpart that, due to the pandemic and utter economic chaos facing his country, he is willing to pause the fighting indefinitely and acquiesce to some of the Trump Administration’s (and Gulf state’s) demands to rebuild and stop the war. 

Putin arranges a tripartite call between himself, Assad, and Trump. Assad tells Trump he is ready to make a deal. He even says the Trump Organization could be the first western company to re-enter the Syrian market. Construction on a Trump International Hotel in the heart of Damascus catering to wealthy European businesspeople, Gulf sheikhs, and Russian oligarchs would begin immediately. Any barriers to American investment would be removed and the regime would demand Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies withdraw. The only condition: publicly pressure Israel to return the Golan. Yes, there could be some GOP pushback in such a scenario, but Trump could sell his supporters on the fact that he is bringing some semblance of peace to the region and he would not have another election to worry about anyway. Besides, he might say, look what I did with the embassy. Jerusalem is the heart and soul of the Holy Land, not the Golan Heights. Do you have any doubts Donald Jr. and Eric Trump would not be on the first available flight to the war-torn country? 

Reducing American financial support to the Palestinian Authority government in an attempt to advance negotiations with Israel or change its internal behavior is a perfectly legitimate tactic. In fact, western countries should be tougher on the PA. Why does an entity that claims it wants peace incite violence against Israeli Jews, question Israel’s legitimacy, pay terrorists and their families, and let so many of its own people suffer in poverty and refugee camps receive billions every year from foreign countries? The PA is as corrupt an institution as they come. But cutting American financial aid to the PA security services and humanitarian projects helping the Palestinian people are not in the interests of the United States or Israel. 

Israeli-PA security coordination (which has been officially suspended but likely continuing clandestinely) has been instrumental in preventing terror attacks across the West Bank. It has prevented Hamas from gaining terror strongholds and saved countless Israeli and Palestinian lives. PA security ties with the CIA and other American agencies has also helped lead to more security stability in the region. American humanitarian assistance to credible Palestinian organizations (not the PA) helps to better Palestinian quality of life, which in turn contributes to Israel’s security. 

President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018 was welcomed by many center-right supporters of Israel. While I agree that elements of the deal were deeply flawed (an end to many nuclear related sanctions, Iran regaining access to previously frozen monetary assets in the West, the clock preventing Iranian enrichment set with a definite end time, and no focus on other aspects of Iran’s destabilizing actions besides its nuclear program), Trump has lacked a coherent policy towards the Islamic Republic. Calling the agreement a “horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made” is one thing. Having a policy of your own is another. Trump’s antipathy towards the deal seems to be more rooted in hatred of his predecessor than in its actual contents. 

Trump and those surrounding him have openly said they want to negotiate with Iran. In an August 19, 2020 interview with Voice of America, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner said “President Trump is willing to talk” and meet with Iranian leadership. John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish former National Security Advisor, said in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio that Trump withdrew from the deal because of domestic political considerations, and that “anyone who is concerned about what happens in the Middle East should worry about what happens in a second term.” In his new memoir, Bolton claims that Kushner prevented Trump from talking to Netanyahu during a 2019 G7 meeting in France, fearing that Bibi would try to persuade Trump not to meet with the Iranian foreign minister. Does this sound like a president who has any clue about the Iraninan nuclear program? How would any “deal” Trump’s team might be able to negotiate significantly differ from the JCPOA (hint: it would not)?

Trump’s incoherent Syria policy has also run counter to Israeli and American security interests in the region. His decision to withdraw American forces from parts of Syria, first ordered in December 2018 and carried out more fully in October 2019, was done hastily and without any coordination with allies, including Israel. By withdrawing from northern Syria, Trump abandoned the Syrian Kurds (our boots on the ground allies in the fight against ISIS) to invading Turkish forces and Islamist proxies bent on their destruction. The vacuum left by the American withdrawal was hastily filled by Russia, Turkey, the Assad regime, and Iran, the latter three of whom are openly hostile towards the Jewish state. Israel is strongest and most secure when the United States is fully engaged in the region, not when a shoot from the hip president decides it is time to leave the Middle East to its own devices and withdraw a small but critically important American force. 

Anyone in the administration who played a role in the recent Israel-United Arab Emirates normalization agreement deserves credit. While Trump’s direct role was likely small, there is no doubt that Kushner and his team were part of the driving force behind turning the covert Israeli-Emirati relationship into a public partnership. There are few flaws to the deal: Israel establishes open diplomatic, economic, security, and cultural ties with an Arab state in exchange for “suspending” unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank that Trump’s “Deal of the Century” envisioned Israel retaining in a final status agreement with the Palestinians. I do not think annexation was a smart move and see normalization with the UAE as a win-win for Israel. Yet recent reports about the United States selling F-35 fighter jets to the UAE as a sweetener for the Emiratis raise some questions. Trump has sought to sell weapons and planes to the Gulf monarchies throughout his presidency, but American commitment to Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME) since the Yom Kippur War has prevented the sale of some of the more advanced weaponry to Arab states. What did Trump promise the UAE? Does he understand the nuances of maintaining Israel’s QME? 

Donald Trump’s Israel policies have divided American Jewish supporters of Israel as much as anything else he has done as president. Many of his signature moves found backing from big tent and right-wing pro-Israel groups and were lauded by his Jewish supporters. Upon closer inspection, however, Donald Trump’s Israel policies paint a picture of a re-election and Obama-hating obsessed president who only sees Israel as a way to galvanize his base. That is certainly not “good” for Israel.

About the Author
Brian Burke is a Pittsburgh native and 2019 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied political science, history, and Jewish studies. In college, he was involved with Hillel and the David Project, holding several leadership positions including president of the Pitt Hillel Jewish Student Union in 2018. Like many early 20-somethings, he is figuring out what comes next amidst the health and economic uncertainties of these times.
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