Trump: The most pro-Israel president in American history
In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, it is time to reflect on the impact of Trump's presidency on various countries across the globe. How do different countries look back upon four years of President Trump? In this fourth episode of the Clingendael Spectator series “Four Years Trump: Taking Stock and Looking Forward”, Eytan Gilboa analyses ‘the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House.’
In August 2019, President Donald Trump declared himself “history’s most pro-Israel U.S. president.” He also characterised the Democrats as radicals seeking to destroy the special relationship between the US and Israel. “If you vote for a Democrat”, he said, “you are very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people.” Prominent American Jewish leaders, mainly Democrats, protested his rebuke.
In January 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Trump as “the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House.” A spring 2019 global survey by the Pew Research Center found that Israel was the only country among 33 where a majority of people (55%) approved of Trump’s policies; and 71% expressed confidence in his “world leadership.” Here Israel was ranked second only to the Philippines at 77%.1
Trump has reversed long-standing US policies on several critical security, diplomatic and political issues to Israel’s favour. These include the Iran nuclear accord, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, treatment of Israel at the UN and the status of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
The US and Israel have a long-standing “special relationship.”2 It is based on a rare combination of “hard” and “soft” foundations. The hard consists of mutual strategic interests and the political influences of American Jewry and Evangelical Christians. The soft consists of similarities in historical development, shared values and a mutually favourable and supportive public opinion.
The special relationship transcends any specific American administration or Israeli government and thus ensures continuity and stability. Yet, presidents have adopted fundamentally different approaches to Israel. Presidents like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump had an emotional connection to Israel and were considered very pro-Israel, while Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter did not possess such sentiments and were considered unfriendly.
Iran's Nuclear Weapons
To Israel, the Iran nuclear weapons programme represents the principal security threat, not the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.3 Iran's leaders often call for the destruction of Israel. The combination of this extreme ideology and weapons of mass destruction indeed makes Iran the most dangerous threat to Israel's survival. While both the US and Israel have agreed that Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, they have diverged only on the means to assure this goal.
In July 2015, the Obama administration negotiated – together with the other permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany – a ‘nuclear deal’ with Iran that removed sanctions in return for restrictions on their nuclear programme. Israel and the Sunni Muslim Arab states strongly opposed this agreement.
Trump agreed with Israel and the Arab states. He described the deal as the worst accord ever, withdrew the US in May 2018, and re-imposed harsh sanctions on Iran. He rehabilitated US relations with the Sunni pro-American Arab states and promoted a coalition between them and Israel against Iran.
Israel approved of this radical reversal of US policy. The other signatories of the deal strongly criticised Trump's reversal and attempted to undermine and circumvent his new sanctions.
Iran is hoping for a Democratic win in the 2020 presidential elections and a restoration of Obama’s nuclear deal
In response to Trump's withdrawal, Iran violated the agreement and began uranium enrichment beyond the deal's permitted level. Trump called on Iran to negotiate a new agreement that would cover issues left out of Obama's deal, such as development of long-range ballistic missiles and sponsorship of violence in the Middle East.
Iran first wanted all the new sanctions removed but Trump refused. Iran is thus hoping for a Democratic win in the 2020 presidential elections and a subsequent restoration of Obama's deal.
Military Aid and Security Collaboration
Despite serious disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu over Iran and other issues, in September 2016 they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) committing $3.8 billion annually for military aid to Israel in the next 10 years.4
The term ‘aid’ in the context of US-Israeli defence relations is somewhat misleading. The more accurate term would be ‘investment’
Obama continued the substantial, decades-long American military assistance to Israel which has been one of the most quantifiable manifestations of the special relationship. Although the MOU was signed for 10 years, Congress must annually approve the transaction. Indeed, Trump has annually requested the agreed-upon appropriations and Congress has approved them.
Use of the term ‘aid’ in the context of US-Israeli defence relations is somewhat misleading. The more accurate and appropriate term would be ‘investment.’5 In return for aid, Israel provides the US with invaluable information about weapons effectiveness, innovative military technology like missile defence systems and border surveillance technology, and shares intelligence and battle-proven military doctrines.
The US military also annually conducts highly productive military exercises with the Israeli army, and the Trump administration has continued and strengthened the close US-Israel security collaboration.
The Golan Heights
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Many American mediation efforts failed to achieve peace based on an Israeli withdrawal from the Heights in return for peace and security arrangements. In December 1981, Israel annexed the area. The US criticised the action because it considered the Heights to be Syrian occupied territory and thought it should be kept as an asset for future peace negotiations.
Following the atrocious civil war in Syria, the relentless Iranian attempts to build another front against Israel in Syria (in addition to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza), and the loss of any chance to reach peace, Israel sought American recognition of its sovereignty over the Heights.6
On 25 March 2019, Trump signed a proclamation stating that “the United States recognizes that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel.”
Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem
Successive American presidents have promised to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In October 1995, the US Congress instructed the president to move the Embassy to Jerusalem by May 1999. Since then, however, presidents signed a waiver for “national security” considerations.
In June 2017, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution (90-0) that reaffirmed the 1995 Act and called upon the President to implement it. Six months later, Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moved the Embassy from Tel Aviv.7
The move was controversial because Jerusalem was supposed to be an issue to be negotiated with the Palestinians. The Embassy, however, was moved to West Jerusalem, a part of Jerusalem of which no one questions Israel's sovereignty; it is the status of East Jerusalem that is contentious and requires negotiation.
By moving the Embassy to Jerusalem Trump has corrected a historical diplomatic anomaly, since every sovereign country has the right to determine where to locate its capital
Israelis were gratified with the move because Trump corrected a historical diplomatic anomaly, since every sovereign country has the right to determine where to locate its capital. In December 1949, Israel declared Jerusalem as its capital. Most countries, however, including the US, did not recognise this decision.
The Palestinians vehemently protested the move and many experts predicted waves of violent anti-American protest throughout the Muslim world. They were wrong. Israel hoped that other countries would follow the US example, however, only very few did.
The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
Trump said that all previous plans to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have failed and therefore a radically different approach was needed. The move of the Embassy was part of this new approach.
Unlike Obama, Trump blamed the Palestinians for the impasse in the negotiations with Israel and adopted a ‘business approach’ to resolving the conflict. He used a combination of sticks and carrots to influence the Palestinian behaviour and called his own peace plan “the deal of the century.”
Trump cut the annual US aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) – $500 million – claiming that its purpose had been to facilitate a peace process. Since the Palestinians refused to negotiate and criticised him on an aggressive and personal level, the justification for helping them had ceased. Trump closed the PLO office in Washington, claiming that after the establishment of the PA in 1995, there was no need for such a Palestinian mission.
Trump has rejected Obama’s claim that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal and the main obstacle to peace
Additionally, Trump cut the annual US contributions to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinians ($250-400 million), claiming that UNRWA is corrupt, perpetuates the Palestinian refugee problem, and that its schools are engendering hostility toward Israel and Jews.
Trump rejected Obama's claim that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal and the main obstacle to peace. He was especially offended by a resolution initiated by Obama at the UN Security Council in December 2016, when Trump was already president-elect.
The UN resolution (2334) stated that Israel's settlement activity constituted a “flagrant violation” of international law and had “no legal validity.” On 18 November 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared, “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law.”
Trump's Peace Plan
The plan included two parts, economic and political.8 Due to recurrent elections in Israel, the economic part was presented first at a workshop held in Bahrain in June 2019, mainly with businessmen.
The idea was to present to the Palestinians the potential benefits of peace through a comprehensive package of economic development in the West Bank, Gaza and countries such as Jordan and Egypt, worth about $50 billion. The political aspect was presented in January 2020 at the White House.
The plan offered the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and over 70% of the West Bank, plus territorial compensation in Israel itself, and a capital on the outskirts of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians would relinquish their demand for the ‘right of return’ of refugees to Israel. Israel would annex the large Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank and would receive significant security arrangements and political assurances.
The deal was considered too pro-Israel. Indeed, Israel accepted it but the Palestinians vigorously rejected it.9 Several Arab countries urged the Palestinians to accept the plan as a basis for negotiations. The European Union, as well as many commentators, in particular condemned the Israeli annexation article and opined that the deal was impracticable.
Biased international organizations
Israel has been the single most discriminated-against state at the UN.10 From 2012 through 2019, the UN General Assembly had adopted a total of 202 resolutions criticising countries. Israel was the subject of 163 of those, accounting for 81% of all resolutions. Trump's UN ambassador Nikki Haley severely criticised the UN for its numerous one-sided anti-Israeli resolutions.
The UN Human Rights Council has passed more resolutions condemning Israel than the rest of the world combined
Of all the UN agencies, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) has been the most politicised and anti-Israeli UN body. It has one agenda item dedicated solely to Israel and another for the rest of the world, and it has passed more resolutions condemning Israel than the rest of the world combined.
The HRC has appointed three highly-biased, unethical and unprofessional committees of inquiry into alleged Israeli war crimes in the course of military confrontations with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. After the election to the HRC of another slew of the worst state violators of human rights in the world, Trump decided in June 2018 to withdraw from HRC, accusing it of being a “hypocritical body that makes a mockery of human rights.”11
Trump also sided with Israel against the plan of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank. The ICC is also planning to investigate the US for war crimes in Afghanistan, and Trump's response was swift and harsh.
The US threatened to impose severe sanctions on the ICC prosecutor, judges and employees. Following outlandish resolutions that declared the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Cave of the Jewish Patriarchs in Hebron as Palestinian-only holy places, the US pulled out of UNESCO in January 2019.
Joe Biden, the 2020 presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, is a moderate and has a good record on Israel. Yet, he served as Obama's Vice President and is under pressure from the growing power and influence of the radical-left wing of his party to adopt anti-Israeli policies, especially on the critical issues of the Iran nuclear deal, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and military aid.12
Despite reservations about Trump's personality, unpresidential behaviour and unpredictability, given his many positive policies and actions on Israel's critical concerns, coupled with the Democratic tilt to the radical left, it seems that most Israeli representatives and most of the public would like to see him win a second term.
All authors of this Clingendael Spectator series will grade the impact of the Trump administration on the relation with their country in the scorecard below.
- 1. Pew Research Center, 'Few in other countries approve of Trump’s major foreign policies, but Israelis are an exception', 3 February 2020.
- 2. Dennis Ross, Doomed to succeed: The U.S.-Israel relationship from Truman to Obama, New York, NY: Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
- 3. Gil Merom, 'Israeli perceptions of the Iranian nuclear threat', Political Science Quarterly, 132 (2017), 87-118.
- 4. Jeremy Sharp, US foreign aid to Israel, Washington, DC. Congressional Research Service. 2019.
- 5. James Kirchick, 'Quit Harping on U.S. Aid to Israel', The Atlantic, 29 March 2019.
- 6. William Cubbison, 'What do Israelis think about the Golan Heights?', Jerusalem: The Israel Democracy Institute, 31 March 2019.
- 7. Eytan Gilboa, ‘Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem: Righting a diplomatic wrong’, Times of Israel', 13 May 2018.
- 8. The White House, 'Peace to prosperity: A vision to improve the lives of the Palestinians and the Israeli people', January 2020.
- 9. Aron Heller and Matthew Lee, 'Trump peace plan delights Israelis, enrages Palestinians', Associated Press, 29 January 2020.
- 10. Three successive UN General Secretaries confirm this bias and discrimination. In March 1998, Kofi Annan criticized the exclusion of Israel from the system of regional groupings in the UN and said this must be corrected. He also denounced the resolutions exclusively blaming Israel only for violence in the region. (See: Eve Epstein, Annan Made the Nations a little less United against Israel. Forward, 22 December 2006.) In December 2016, his successor Ban Ki-Moon told the UNGA: “Over the last decade I have argued that we cannot have a bias against Israel at the UN. Decades of political maneuvering have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel."(See: Bulman, May. Ban Ki-moon says UN has 'disproportionate' focus on Israel Independent, 18 December 2016.) In April 2017, his successor Antonio Guterres said, “[a]s secretary-general of the UN, I consider that the state of Israel needs to be treated as any other state.” (See: UN chief vows to stand up against anti-Israel bias, anti-Semitism. Times of Israel, 24 April 2017). See also: UN Watch. 'How the UN discriminates against Israel', 22 November 2019.
- 11. Eytan Gilboa, 'Trump stands firm against bias and abuses in international organizations', BESA Center Perspectives, no. 972, 11 October 2018; 'The US-Israeli campaign against the International Criminal Court', Times of Israel, 19 May 2020.
- 12. Eytan Gilboa, 'The foreign policy of US Democrats', Jerusalem Post, 4 February 2020.