Less than a week after he was inaugurated into office, President Donald Trump announced that he had repaired the US’s fractured ties with Israel. “It got repaired as soon as I took the oath of office,” he said.
Not only does Israel now enjoy warm relations with the White House. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in the US capital next week, he will be greeted by the most supportive political climate Israel has ever seen in Washington.
It is true that dangers to Israel’s ties with America lurk in the background. The radical Left is taking control of the Democratic Party.
But the forces now hijacking the party on a whole host of issues have yet to transform their hatred of Israel into the position of most Democratic lawmakers in Congress.
Democrats in both houses of Congress joined with their Republican counterparts in condemning UN Security Council Resolution 2334 that criminalized Israel. A significant number of Democratic lawmakers support Trump’s decision to slap new sanctions on Iran.
Similarly, radical Jewish groups have been unsuccessful in rallying the more moderate leftist Jewish leadership to their cause. Case in point is the widespread support Trump’s appointment of David Friedman to serve as his ambassador to Israel is receiving from the community.
Whereas J Street and T’ruah are circulating a petition calling for people to oppose his Senate confirmation, sources close to the issue in Washington say that AIPAC supports it.
Given this political climate, Netanyahu must use his meeting with Trump to develop a working alliance to secure Israel’s long-term strategic interests both on issues of joint concern and on issues that concern Israel alone.
The first issue on the agenda must be Iran.
Since taking office, Trump has signaled that unlike his predecessors, he is willing to lead a campaign against Iran. Trump has placed Iran on notice that its continued aggression will not go unanswered and he has harshly criticized Obama’s nuclear deal with the mullahs.
In the lead-up to his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu has said that he will present the new president with five options for scaling back Tehran’s nuclear program. No time can be wasted in addressing this problem.
Iran continues spinning its advanced centrifuges.
The mullahs are still on schedule to field the means to deploy nuclear warheads at will within a decade. Netanyahu’s task is to work with Trump to significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program as quickly as possible.
Then there is Syria. And Russia.
On Sunday, Trump restated his desire to develop ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Netanyahu must present Trump with a viable plan to reconstitute US-Russian ties in exchange for Russian abandonment of its alliance with Tehran and its cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah in Syria.
Here, too, time is of the essence.
According to news reports this week, President Bashar Assad is redeploying his forces to the Syrian border with Israel. Almost since the outset of the war in Syria six years ago, Assad’s forces have been under Iranian and Hezbollah control. If Syrian forces deploy to the border, then Iran and Hezbollah will control the border.
Israel cannot permit such a development. It’s not just that such a deployment greatly expands the risk of war. As long as Russia is acting in strategic alliance with Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, the deployment of Iranian-controlled forces to the border raises the real possibility that Israel will find itself at war with Russia in Syria.
Then there are the Sunnis. For the past six years, Netanyahu successfully withstood Obama’s pressure by developing an informal alliance with Sunni regimes that share its opposition to Iran and to the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to sources aware of the Trump administration’s strategic plans, the administration wishes to integrate Israel more strongly into Washington’s alliance structure with Sunni regimes. Israel, of course, has good reason to support this plan, particularly if it involves extending the US military’s Central Command to include Israel.
There are, however, significant limitations on the potential of Israel’s ties to Sunni regimes. First, there is the fact that all of these regimes are threatened by Islamist forces operating in their territory and on their borders.
As Israel Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel warned this week, Israel is concerned that in the event any of these regimes is overthrown, the advanced US weapons it fields will fall under the control of Islamist forces.
Then there is the fact that in exchange for taking their relations with Israel out of the proverbial closet, the Arabs will demand that Israel make concessions to the PLO.
This then brings us to the only subject the media is discussing in relation to Netanyahu’s upcoming meeting with Trump: Will Trump push Israel to make concessions to the PLO or won’t he? The short answer is that it doesn’t appear that Trump has the slightest intention of doing so.
Over the past week, the administration has made three statements about the Palestinians.
First, of course, was the White House’s statement about the so-called Israeli settlements that came out last Thursday.
Although nearly all media reports on the statement claimed it aligned Trump with his predecessors in opposition to Israel’s civilian presence in Judea and Samaria, the fact is that the statement was the most supportive statement any US administration has ever made about those communities.
Obama, of course rejected Israel’s right to any civilian presence beyond the 1949 armistice lines, including in Jerusalem. In his final weeks in office, Obama joined the international mob in falsely castigating Israeli communities in these areas as illegal.
George W. Bush for his part, made a distinction between the so-called settlement blocs and the more isolated Israeli villages in Judea and Samaria. He gave grudging and limited support for Israel’s right to respect the property rights of Jews in the former. He rejected Jewish property rights in the latter.
Trump repudiated both of these positions.
In its statement on Thursday, the administration made no distinction between Jewish property rights in any of the areas. Moreover, the statement did not even reject the construction of new Israeli communities.
According to the text of the statement, “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving” the goal of peace.
But, then again, they may be helpful. And then again, they may have no impact whatsoever on the chance of achieving peace.
Not only did the administration’s statement not reject Israel’s right to build new communities, it rejected completely the position of Trump’s predecessors that Israeli communities are an obstacle to peace.
In the administration’s words, “We don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace.”
After renouncing the positions of its predecessors on Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, the administration then refused to say whether its vision for peace includes a Palestinian state.
In line with the Republican Party’s platform that makes no mention of support for Palestinian statehood, the Trump administration continues to question the rationale for supporting a policy that has failed for the past 95 years.
Finally, the administration said it had no comment on the regulations law this week regarding Jewish construction rights in Judea and Samaria.
All White House spokesman Sean Spicer would say was that it would be discussed in Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu.
This brings us back to that meeting, and how Netanyahu should broach the Palestinian issue.
Both from statements by administration sources since the election and from the administration’s refusal to speak with Palestinian Authority officials since Trump’s electoral victory, Trump and his top advisers have made clear that they see no upside to US support for the PLO.
They do not want to support the PLO and they do not want to be dragged into fruitless discussions between Israel and the PLO. For the past 24 years, US mediation of those discussions has weakened America’s position in the region, has weakened Israel and has empowered the PLO and anti-American forces worldwide.
According to sources with knowledge of the administration’s position, Trump views the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as an internal Israeli issue.
He expects Israel to deal with it and do so in a way that stabilizes the region and keeps the Palestinians out of the headlines, to the extent possible.
In this vein, sources with knowledge of administration considerations claim that last Thursday’s White House statement on Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria was in part the result of exasperation with Israel’s inability to keep quiet on the issue. Had Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman not announced that they were issuing permits for thousands of building starts in Judea and Samaria, the White House wouldn’t have felt compelled to issue a statement on the matter.
The administration’s desire to disengage from the PLO is well aligned with Israel’s strategic interests. No good has ever come to Israel from US support for the PLO. Moreover, Israel has achieved its greatest strategic successes in relation to determining its borders when it has kept its moves as low key as possible.
For instance, in 1981, when then-prime minister Menachem Begin applied Israeli law to the Golan Heights, he did so with no fanfare. Rather than loudly announcing Israel’s right to sovereignty over the area, Begin insisted that the move was done to satisfy administrative imperatives and that Israel would be willing to consider border corrections in the event that Syria became serious about peace at some later date.
Begin’s example should inform Netanyahu’s preparations for his meeting with Trump.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu does not seem to realize the implications of Trump’s lack of interest in following in his predecessors’ footsteps in relation to the PLO.
Over the past few weeks, Netanyahu has insisted that he wishes to coordinate his positions on the Palestinians with the administration. While he should take any concerns Trump voices to him on the issue into consideration, he should also make clear that the administration’s belief that no good has come to the US from its support for the PLO is well-founded. He should also explain Israel’s need to control Area C in perpetuity, and the problem with maintaining military administration of the area. Finally, he should assure Trump that Israel intends to secure its interests in Judea and Samaria in a way than does not impinge on US priorities.
Next week can be the beginning of a new era in Israel’s relations with the US. But to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity, Israel needs to recognize its role as America’s ally. It must take the necessary steps to perform that role, and it must free the administration from the shackles of the PLO while securing its long-term interests in Judea and Samaria unilaterally, and quietly.
A version of this piece also appeared on The Jerusalem Post