Will Trump Be Israel's Redeemer?

Donald Trump at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Flickr/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Given the apparent continuities between the Obama and Trump administrations, what’s new?

Having steered his new administration, with record speed, into scandal and dysfunction, Donald Trump is now on his first foreign trip as president. He sets down today in Israel, his second stop after a weekend in Saudi Arabia. The Israeli Right, in firm control of the country, heralded Trump’s surprise election as the coming of another Cyrus the Great, Persian redeemer of the Jews and sponsor of the repatriation to Israel of the Babylonian captivity. But the American president that Israelis are welcoming today is not quite the savior from Obama-era discord that many of them had hoped for.

Trump himself encouraged that hope, as when—one month after his election and one month before his inauguration—he tweeted: “Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!” But there are three fundamental problems with this notion of Trump the Redeemer. First is that the belief that difficulties between Washington and Jerusalem during the Obama years stemmed from his innate hostility to the Jewish state never really reflected reality. Second, the difficulties that did arise stemmed from legitimate differences about the best way to deal with strategic challenges faced by both states. Third, was the growing sense of shared identity, policy preferences and worldview between the Republican Party and Israel’s government and the consequent shift of the U.S.-Israel relationship from a bipartisan concern to a political football.

The myth of Obama’s hostility is refuted by his administration’s record. During those eight years, U.S. security assistance to Israel broke all previous records, and the administration’s rhetoric was rococo in its pledges of admiration and support for America’s muscular protégé in a tough neighborhood. Where the Obama White House disappointed Israel was in its modest proposal that the future borders of an Israeli and Palestinian state be based on the June 1967 ceasefire lines, which merely recapped preexisting U.S. policy; in its request that Israel freeze settlements on the West Bank; and in its determination not to start a war with the Islamic Republic of Iran but rather to curtail its nuclear aspirations through a negotiated multilateral deal. In other respects, the United States was prepared to back Israel’s demand that the Palestinians re-recognize Israel, this time as a Jewish state, and to go all out to defeat a Palestinian campaign for recognition by the UN General Assembly. In the twilight of Obama’s second term, the administration did abstain from vetoing an even-handed UN Security Council Resolution condemning settlements, but this merely affirmed U.S. policy going back to the Reagan administration. Nevertheless it precipitated vehement reactions from both Trump, who immediately tapped out his “stay strong” tweet, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attempted to cast a U.S. abstention on a resolution with no practical implication as a sinister “conspiracy.”

It is true that Washington stunned counterparts in Israel by recognizing free and fair elections in Egypt that produced a Muslim Brotherhood government. Yet that government, headed by the now-jailed Mohamed Morsi, seemed to work pretty well with Jerusalem through crises in Gaza and Sinai, despite underlying animosities. Morsi’s overthrow in a majoritarian counterrevolution and coup caused uncomfortable murmurs in Washington, but the Obama administration, to the irritation of its political base, did not disrupt cooperative relations with the new regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, although there was some grumbling after the Rabaa massacre. After Syria’s Bashar al-Assad irrefutably used poison gas against civilians in 2013, some Israelis were disappointed by Obama’s embrace of diplomacy to disarm the regime of 1,300 tons of chemical weapons rather than resorting to the kind of pinprick air attack that Trump would later launch. But Israel’s quiet decision to suspend its civilian gas mask distribution program told another story. Since then, Syrian airspace has been a free-fire zone for the Israeli air force, which, on the whole, has not been such a bad outcome for Israel’s security interests.

Given the apparent continuities between two administrations differing in temperament, structure and style, what’s new?

The distinctive theme of Trump’s trip can be inferred from his itinerary: first Saudi Arabia, then Israel. It must be inferred because it is not clearly articulated. But there has been a convergence of vision between those in the United States favoring a more confrontational approach to Iran, Israeli strategists and Sunni Arab leaders around a common front against Iran. In one somewhat wistful sense, this inchoate doctrine is a variation on an older theme, the longstanding dream of a Middle East in which the Jews are integrated as a valued partner for the Arab world. Its original utopian, if Orientalist, image harks back to early in the twentieth century, when British Zionists—David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, Arthur Balfour—saw Jewish settlement of Palestine as the leavening for a vibrant, Westernized post-Ottoman Arab world. It’s a history whose persistence has been matched only by the disappointment it has radiated over the past century.