Israel and Trump: Fundamental Departure from Foreign Policy Legacy?

Since the inception of the state of Israel in 1948, the United States has found a close ally in it. A“strategic asset”, it provides access to the Arab nations, a base for its intervention forces and a stronghold on the politically lucrative Middle East.

Israel has been the largest annual recipient of direct U.S. economic and military assistance since 1976 and has been the largest total recipient since World War II. This bill stood at a $3.1 billion in 2015. In 2016, it was promised a monumental $40 billion (over the decade) for investment in military technology. Israel is unaccountable for its expenditure of the aid, inviting heavy criticism about the money being spent on expanding settlements in the West Bank. Diplomatic support has also been considerable with the U.S. exercising its veto power 43 times to protect rebuke of Israel.

The “fateful triangle” between the United States and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories has thus been mired with the ambiguity of strategic interest in foreign policy. This article traces the future of American foreign policy towards Israel in light of the incumbency of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States. In order to understand the departure of Trump’s policy, the position of the Obama presidency must be first explored.

Obama: daring in restraint 

Barack Obama attempted to challenge the legacy of partnership with Israel. His orientation is symbolic in his administration’s abstention during voting demanding an end to expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory. Efforts were also made to broker diplomatic negotiations in 2014, boldly demanding a freeze on settlement.

Earlier, using powerful language supporting the international consensus, Obama had rebuked Israel’s construction in Jerusalem. Obama was vocal in his support for the two-state solution right since 2009, delineating fair boundaries for Palestine. This is important to note, since it is in this respect that the subsequent government marks a departure. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unlike his predecessors, is vehemently opposed to this. He proposed “economic peace” and accommodation as an alternative to the political solution (Palestinian sovereignty). In other areas of bilateral ties, Obama was similarly at loggerheads with Netanyahu, especially in signing the Iran nuclear deal. His liberal, internationalist outlook was met with fierce opposition from his counterpart.

Rather than being a revolutionary foreign policy maker, despite his rhetoric, Obama was a prisoner of the status quo. The abstention mentioned above was perhaps an exception amongst his vetoes. The financial and diplomatic flow was maintained and increased. While words condemned the settlements, their expansion continued with impunity in the absence of concrete Security Council decisions. In fact, the very funding that the Obama administration provided was used to carry out the occupation. This position must be contextualised, both domestically and internationally. The dominant narrative in America is overwhelming support for Israel, by the ‘Jewish lobby’ and Congress alike. As a representative of the nation, bound by its priorities and restrained by the ballot, Obama reoriented his ideological position. His second term was also characterised by the rise of the Islamic State and American military presence in the area became crucial. Foreign policy decisions taken by the administration, thus, must not be analysed in a vacuum.

Trump: deviance and polarisation

The 2016 election campaign by the Republican candidate was vehemently opposed to Obama’s foreign policy decisions, particularly in the Middle East, and he vowed to overturn them when elected. While the nature of Obama’s status-quo outlook has been explored above, Trump’s foreign policy path still marks a sharp turn.

The first was his statement released in February 2017: “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like”. The United States has been instrumental in brokering deals between Israel and Palestine for the very solution Trump said he was neutral towards. He left the decision up to the two parties. However, the parties have failed to agree upon any solution for decades. Marginal progress was made with the Palestinian acceptance of the 1993 Oslo Accords, but Netanyahu and the tilt towards the Right in Israel prevent any foreseeable boundary solution. The inherent power imbalance between the parties was also recognised by the international community which backed the Palestinian territories, thus the fairness of a bilateral solution is bound to be a myth. A one-state solution would mean de facto occupation and ghettoisation of Palestine, with the prospect of equal citizenship unlikely since the Jews would not agree to being reduced to a minority within their state.

This apparent neutrality of stance might be celebrated as a new era of U.S. withdrawal from deciding the future of conflicts it is not a party to. However, the majoritarian overtones are apparent, combined with the thick Islamophobic rhetoric the President has been employing in speeches and in policy. The second policy decision was his announcement of relocating the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This would mean de facto recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli territory. The holy city has been at the centre of religious conflict, from the Crusades to the current Israel-Palestine conflict. Both parties claim the city to be their capital, since it has religious significance for both Islam and Judaism. It is currently an international city, with the East and West parts under the jurisdiction of either. Cementing the claim of Israel over a major Palestinian demand would make American foreign policy explicitly titled in Israel’s favour. Earlier policy was based on a “strategic partnership”, with a simultaneous condemnation of human rights violations and paying lip service to Palestinian grievances by closely cooperating with them. His commitment to this renewed orientation has remained, despite international censure and criticism of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The forty-fifth presidency of the United States has thus reoriented American foreign policy towards one of the most important conflicts of the century. While the personality of the person in the Oval Office is important, it must be emphasised that these decisions are not a marked departure, but strengthening of an earlier ambiguous stance. Whether the structural constraints of the international consensus, challengers to American hegemony and domestic liberal and leftist opinion would lead to a reconsideration of this position is to be seen as the politics unfurl.

 

Note: This was written in May. Since then, the Trump administration has made it clear that any attempts are relocating the embassy are infinitely postponed. 

Image source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/22/donald-trump-says-common-threat-iran-may-bring-israel-arab-neighbours/
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