Out With the Old, In With the New
President Barack Obama eroded the U.S.’s superpower status and is leaving behind a far more dangerous world than the one he inherited. A Trump administration gives Israel reason to be optimistic, although we must remember he is a very shrewd businessman.
We cannot help but admire the American public, which eight years ago elected Barack Obama as the United States’ first African-American president. The elation in the streets in New York City, where I was when he was sworn in, reflected the change American society had undergone, and the joy there was genuine.
Obama assumed office with a very solid worldview. He believed many of the challenges the U.S. was facing globally stemmed from its forceful conduct and its ability to impose its will on other nations, and that many of the failures the U.S. had experienced in the international theater stemmed from the fact that it did not try to improve ties with its adversaries.
This drove him to visit the Middle East — though he skipped Israel — in 2009 and give his famous Cairo speech. He believed addressing the people from the heart would be met in kind. This was also the logic that drove his attempt to promote a new rapport with Russia.
Eight years later, it is hard to say the world has repaid Obama in kind. The world is not a better, more democratic place, nor does it favor the U.S. in any way. This is especially true in the Middle East, but the sentiment is shared elsewhere as well. Moreover, the U.S. rollback on its role in different regions had only made its allies wary of their aggressive neighbors. So much so, that in some countries, there has been talk of replacing the dwindling American nuclear umbrella — by which the U.S., as a nuclear power, guarantees the protection of its non-nuclear allies — with independent atomic abilities. Should that become reality, it would spell a horrific nuclear race.
Obama is leaving behind a world far more dangerous than the one with which he was entrusted as the leader of the most powerful country in the world — a title he managed to seriously compromise.
A bumpy road
As far as Israel-U.S. relations go, the eight-year Obama administration has painted a complex picture.
On the one hand, Israel enjoyed a sympathetic ear with regard to its security needs. The landmark, $38 billion defense aid package signed with the U.S., and the fact that Israel, of all nations, was the first to receive the state of the art F-35 fighter jet, speaks to the American commitment to the Jewish state’s security for decades to come.
The relationship between the Israeli and American intelligence agencies are excellent, and given the system of government in the U.S. that would not be possible without direction from the White House. Israel has also received vital U.S. backing in the international arena more than once.
Still, Washington and Jerusalem were at odds on four important issues:
The first issue was nuclear nonproliferation: In 2010, the administration failed to keep its promise to Israel and gave in to Arab demands for supervision of Israel’s alleged nuclear capabilities. This was done as part of the U.S.’s efforts to maintain a consensus in that year’s nuclear nonproliferation conference in Vienna.
The Americans may not have explicitly admitted that they broke a promise to Israel with this regard, but they understood it was perceived that way by Israel and the world, and judging from the limited foreign reports on the issue, Israel’s complaints were justified.
Later on, the U.S. acted to help Israel overcome the difficulties incurred as a result of that mistake, but the “dent” left by that blatant breach of promise has left its mark on Israeli consciousness, even if its overall effect had dimmed over time.
The second issue is the settlement enterprise: The outgoing administration turned settlement construction in Judea and Samaria into the key issue with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — nothing less than an obsession, and the issue by which any progress will rise or fall.
Washington refrained from pressuring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in any way, even when he failed to agree to the 2014 U.S. framework to reignite the talks. The U.S. deemed Abbas too politically weak to pressure, while any Israeli construction, in Judea and Samaria or Jerusalem, was denounced as an obstacle to peace. This is why the administration probably lost an opportunity of historic proportions to advance the peace talks, while the Israeli government — a Likud government — was more willing than ever to promote it.
The dissonance in the administration’s responses was so jarring that it eroded the effectiveness of U.S. condemnation, as the majority of the Israeli public, and some around the world, perceived it to be one-sided, unjust and unwise. Moreover, the way in which the Obama administration handled the issue of settlements made Abbas climb up a very tall tree, from which it would be hard for him to climb down toward future negotiations.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 denouncing the settlement enterprise, passed in the last month of Obama’s presidency, has only made things worse, and it is likely to stall negotiations further. It seems as if the outgoing president decided to hinder his successor as much as possible, even at the expense of an interest he allegedly wanted to promote. For those seeking to promote the peace talks, Resolution 2334 is counterproductive. If anything, it will be remembered as a low point, the “revenge” of an administration purporting to be analytical and calculated.
Outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East vision speech, warning that Israel’s settlement policies placed the two-state solution in “serious jeopardy,” only exacerbated the feeling that the administration’s obsession with the issue has lost all proportion, to the point of clouding common sense.
The third issue of discord between Jerusalem and Washington was the Iranian nuclear program. Some would say this disagreement culminated in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in March 2015 — perceived as an affront to Obama on his own turf — but truth be told, the crisis was of the administration’s making.
Contrary to how things are handled between allies, the White House made a conscious choice to deceive Israel and conceal the fact it was holding intensive nuclear negotiations with Iran — an issue directly speaking to the very existence of the State of Israel.
This move was especially grating as it involved a dramatic shift in U.S. policy, which resulted in a very bad deal. Even those who believe the deal is solid have a hard time justifying the winding road walked by the U.S. administration to reach it — even more so when some top officials within the administration itself thought it was wrong to hide the talks from Israel.
Choosing this path cost the U.S. Israel’s trust, good will and, to an extent, the professional assistance Israel could have offered, which in turn could have reduced the scope of error inherent in the agreement. The American claim that things were kept a secret for fear of a leak on the Israeli side does not hold water, as nothing had been linked from the intimate Israel-U.S. talks on the issue prior to the U.S.’s deviation off course.
The new reality presented by the administration required Netanyahu to outline Israel’s position in the clearest possible way, especially before the American public, which is Israel’s most important friend. Israel’s existence allows for issues pertaining to the fate of the Jewish people to be stated out loud, and doing so in the most prominent seats of power is the right thing to do. As Kerry himself said, friends must tell each other the truth.
Netanyahu had to consider that the bad deal inked between world powers and Iran may one day require Israel to use force to stop the Islamic republic’s nuclear program from developing possible military dimensions, and he had to lay the moral groundwork that would justify such potential extreme measures.
This need stemmed from the change in U.S. policy, which went from demanding Iran relinquish any nuclear ability, to deferring the development of such abilities by 15 years at most, and allowing Iran to continue developing the next generation of centrifuges and missiles uninterrupted.
Top U.S. officials stress that the quality of defense ties is proof of the Obama administration’s strong support of Israel, but to the president’s opponents, this sounds more like an effort to justify undercutting Israel on the Palestinian issue and Iran’s nuclear program.
The fourth issue at odds is the chaos in the Middle East: This was particularly evident after the 2011 ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, when the Obama administration favored the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as the representative of authentic sentiments among the Egyptian people, over the military’s countercoup.
Israel preferred Egypt not be ruled by the radical ideology propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood, even of the alternative was Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as president maintains an iron grip on Egypt. So here, the lack of consensus between Washington and Jerusalem over the dangers of political Islam was at the heart of the dispute between the two.
The American approach is ideological, and it basically refuses to recognize that radical Islam is one of the authentic sides of Islam. This is why even the term “Islamic terrorism” has been stricken from the politically correct vocabulary used by Washington during the Obama administration.
Pursue a breakthrough
As far as one is able to understand the new administration’s positions on these issues, it is clear that with regard to settlement construction and Iran’s nuclear program, Israel is likely to find a far more sympathetic ear.
Many of Trump’s advisers understand that it is not the settlement enterprise that has prevented Abbas from resuming negotiations with Israel, and therefore there is no point in locking horns over an issue of little practical importance. Instead, efforts should focus on whatever measures that could reignite the peace talks — if that is even possible. As they see it, Abbas will have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk; and he will have to take concrete steps, from halting the Palestinian Authority’s financial support of terrorists’ families, to eliminating the incitement encouraged by Ramallah.
In this context, it is very important that Trump fulfills his campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This would be a clear signal of the U.S.’s commitment to Israel, and recognition of Jerusalem — or its west side at least — as its capital. After the outgoing administration’s stunt at the Security Council and Kerry’s settlement speech, the decision to move the U.S. Embassy to the Israeli capital carries even greater importance.
As for Iran, it seems many in the incoming administration believe the nuclear deal is as bad for the United States as it is for Israel, so it is expected to pursue three paths of action: exhausting measures outside the framework of the agreement, such as imposing sanctions on the Iranian missile program and over the fact that it supports terrorism; holding Tehran to the letter of the agreement far more adamantly than before; and collaborating with Israel on exploring options by which Iran would be unable to pursue nuclear weapons even after the deal elapses, even if that means reopening the deal.
For the sake of Israel-U.S. relations, it is not up to Israel to push for the annulment of the poor Iran deal the outgoing president had committed to — the U.S. must do so to serve its own interests.
Moreover, Iran is a dynamic force in the Middle East, one in the midst of the process of cultivating its control over an axis stretching from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Unless it is stopped, most of the Arab nations in the region, east of the Mediterranean Sea, will fall under Iran’s influence in one way or another.
This would be a historic change that would seriously undermine the U.S.’s traditional allies, pushing many Sunnis into Islamic State-style radicalism. This is another issue where collaboration between the U.S. and Israel would be key, and it could involve the Sunni Arab states seeking regional stability. It may even be possible to pursue a more far-reaching move that would see the Palestinians enter negotiations as well.
As a guiding principle, ties between Israel and the new U.S. administration will have to be based on Israel-U.S. relations dating back decades, and the two will have to think and devise what new areas of collaboration would prove most beneficial for both.
Understandings would have to be reached to bring about a breakthrough in the ties between the two countries, and the cyber sphere is likely to one area in which such understandings are reached. This will not be the only area, of course, but Israel should focus its efforts on improving the issues most important to it, and refrain from scattering its interests.
It is generally believed that once in office, Trump will break the rules, abandon politically correct practices, and act from his gut, in stark contrast to his predecessor. Last month demonstrated that the outgoing president was not about following emotion rather than logic. For now — although it is too soon to judge — the incoming president’s instincts seem more Israel-friendly, but we would be wise to remember that he is also a shrewd businessman.
Originally appeared in Hebrew in Israel Hayom on January 13, 2017 and also at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies on January 16, 2017.