In “Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance,” Warren Bass recounts a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and President John F. Kennedy in which Kennedy reportedly said: “I was elected by the Jews of New York. I have to do something for them. I will do something for you.” Ben Gurion, somewhat taken aback, reportedly responded: “You must do whatever is good for the free world.”
As President Trump’s term winds down, he’ll cling to the image he tried to cultivate as the most pro-Israel president in history. In a speech last year, he said: “The Jewish State has never had a better friend in the White House than your president.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agrees, telling the president earlier this year that Trump has been “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.”
Trump was great for Netanyahu. But there’s a lesson in Ben Gurion’s reply to JFK. With admiration and respect around the world for the United States, particularly in the Middle East, Israel is stronger. And on that score, President-elect Joe Biden will be better for Israel — strengthening bipartisan American support for the Jewish state and pursuing policies abroad far more effective in enhancing Israel’s security and well-being.
Trump can point to a number of pro-Israel initiatives to support his claim, especially this year’s groundbreaking Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and Israel and Bahrain.
But Trump’s pro-Israel gestures mask a weakening of American credibility and reputation around the world, and an assault on the bipartisanship and shared values so critical to the resilience of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Trump’s approach to Iran — withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — and his faulty approach to the Israel-Palestinian peace process have degraded Israel’s security, not enhanced it. Iran is ramping up its nuclear program, while prospects for progress, let alone a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict remain remote.
In 2018, visiting the White House shortly after Trump had officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Netanyahu praised the president and placed him in the same pantheon as other historic benefactors of the Jewish people — Cyrus the Great, Lord Balfour and Harry S. Truman. On the surface, one can see why. The president’s son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, told me a year earlier that Trump would create such a close bond with Netanyahu that the prime minister would never say no if Trump wanted anything in return. Whatever Netanyahu wanted, Trump seemed to oblige him.
The president included Israel as a stop on his first trip abroad. Trump was the first sitting president to pray at the Western Wall. Last year, in the run-up to Israel’s elections, Trump gratuitously declared recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. He announced a one-sided peace proposal opening the door to Israel’s annexation of 30 percent of the West Bank.
These moves have been received by Netanyahu as good news for Israel, and they are popular among many Israelis and some Americans. But beyond this political sugar high, Trump has pursued some policies that run counter to Israel’s long-term interests.
With help from Netanyahu, who long ago cast his lot with the Republican Party and its base, Trump has damaged the bipartisanship on which the durability of the U.S.-Israel relationship depends. To secure his base, which includes evangelical Christians and right-leaning Republicans, and driving a political wedge within the American Jewish community, Trump has tried to make the GOP the go-to party for Israel while demonizing Democrats, cynically remarking last year that “if you vote for a Democrat, you are very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people.”
He risks turning the U.S.-Israel relationship into a morality play, pitting “good” Republicans against “bad” Democrats. But the strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance depends on a political consensus — between America’s two main parties — that the broadest conception of the American national interest means robust support for Israel.; the relationship with Israel cannot and should not depend on the desires and ambitions of a single party or politician.
Trump has weakened America’s reputation around the world, and in doing so weakened Israel. An America seen as breaking its word on international commitments, deemed feckless when it comes to fighting the coronavirus or viewed as unable to build coalitions to contain its adversaries cannot be good for America’s closest ally in the Middle East. Withdrawing from the Paris climate accords, threatening NATO relationships, announcing a drawdown of U.S. forces in Germany, suspending military exercises with South Korea and abandoning Syrian Kurds can only raise doubts in the minds of Israeli planners about America’s commitment to its allies — and in the minds of Israel’s adversaries about the U.S. commitment to Israel.
Trump’s scattered approach to Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria calls U.S. reliability into question. The sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates — regarded as key to the diplomatic normalization deal with Israel — has some Israeli analysts concerned that allowing former adversaries access to sophisticated American military equipment diminishes one of Israel’s strategic advantages.
Trump can tout some genuine Middle East successes, including his prosecution of the war with the Islamic State begun during the Obama administration. But when it comes to the two most pressing regional issues for Israel — addressing the threat from Iran and the Israel-Palestinian peace process, the success of Trump’s policies is in doubt.
The administration’s Iran policy of maximum pressure has hurt Iran’s economy with economic sanctions. But it has done little to stop its nuclear program. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently reported that Iran is increasing its stock of low-enriched uranium; according to the Arms Control Association, Iran has more than twice the amount of fissile material necessary for a nuclear weapon. When Trump bailed out of the Iran nuclear deal, he further alienated the United States from its European allies, and has only deepened Iran’s dependence on Russia and China. Iran has learned to live with sanctions; its regime hasn’t cracked or fallen. Within Iran, the influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is increasing, meaning the continuation of an aggressive Iranian nuclear policy and push for regional influence. None of this works to Israel’s advantage.
Trump’s lopsided Israel-Palestinian peace plan undermined his ability to be an effective broker. The same goes for ordering closed the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington; withdrawing U.S. funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which provides financial assistance to Palestinians; and cutting bilateral aid to the Palestinian Authority has hardened Palestinian negotiating positions and created obstacles to cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The chances of a two-state solution were diminishing even before Trump’s presidency. But in giving tacit approval for continued Israeli settlement activity and conceding greater West Bank control to Israel before negotiations even began on his own proposal, he has made prospects for peace an even longer shot. Along with a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian national movement, Trump has done nothing to help resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict that, if left unsolved over time, will erode Israel’s democratic and Jewish character.
Biden’s election won’t magically solve issues between Israel and Iran or Israel and the Palestinians. Iran’s terms for renegotiating the nuclear deal may be exorbitant. And Palestinians bear their share of responsibility for the sad state of the peace process. In any event, Biden’s administration will not be free of tension with a Netanyahu government. But like for Bill Clinton, working with Israel has been part of Biden’s political life for decades. And like Clinton, he will tend to give Israeli counterparts the benefit of the doubt while at the same time looking for ways to de-escalate tensions with Iran and to reengage with the peace process in a meaningful way. His penchant for bipartisanship, in general, will likely return the U.S.-Israel relationship to the normal balance that has characterized it for decades.
For Israelis and Americans, the incoming Biden administration will help preserve and strengthen the relationship. A United States leading in the world by working in partnership, rather than dictating, and a renewed good faith effort to defuse regional tensions is overdue. Middle East stability, the national aspirations of Palestinians and security for Israel were too important to be left in the hands of Trump, who prioritized partisan political interests at the expense of American global credibility, reputation and national security.