The Trump-Netanyahu Alliance Is Endangering Americans and Israelis
The corrupt bond between Israel’s prime minister and the U.S. president might help them win elections, but it doesn’t keep their citizens safe.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s much-touted Middle East peace plan—presented as the “deal of the century” and a realistic vision to achieve lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians—has crystallized a new reality: U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East has become, under Trump, a byproduct of a self-serving alliance between two populist leaders who are now under duress and suspicion in their own countries.
Indeed, on the very day of the White House ceremony, Trump’s impeachment trial was being conducted in the Senate, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who already had been indicted in three cases of corruption, was formally declared a defendant in a criminal trial. This alliance has given birth to a new U.S. foreign-policy posture that marks a total departure from a long-standing, bipartisan consensus on dealing with the Middle East.
U.S. policymaking in the Middle East is beholden now to the wants of a corrupt alliance that rests on political and personal needs of the two leaders and not on well-established, bipartisan American principles involving both interests and values. A case in point: the very long-standing American objective of serving as an honest broker between the Middle Eastern parties has vanished.
Apart from Trump’s one-sided and dead-on-arrival Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, the alliance’s hold over U.S. foreign policy has manifested itself in several other key regional policy decisions: the decision to assassinate Iran’s Qassem Suleimani, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the defunding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the recognition of the Golan Heights as part of Israel, and the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
The Trump-Netanyahu compact has shaken the fundamentals of U.S. policies, forged out of decades of bipartisanship-driven consensus-building measures designed to arbitrate the Middle East’s longest-running conflict. In the past, Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States have both asserted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and most prominently the question of the final status of the West Bank and Jerusalem, must be determined through free and direct negotiations between the parties themselves. The U.S. role has been limited to serving both parties as an honest broker, whose role is to facilitate and stimulate negotiations. For this reason, the United States has avoided creating or presenting its own map. The Trump vision is anathema to this approach.
Because of the lopsided deal, most parties have reacted to Trump’s Middle East peace cynically. Since the plan has no realistic chance of being accepted by the Palestinians, the peace ploy is ultimately about enhancing Netanyahu’s and Trump’s chances of retaining political power in 2020, rather than about truly establishing a lasting peace in the Middle East. This unbalanced approach is not the way to build peace out of a bloody, century-old conflict. The absence of representatives from Egypt and Jordan—the only Arab countries that have peace pacts with Israel—at the event announcing the peace plan was also conspicuous and self-defeating.
The Trump-Netanyahu alliance has also rewritten U.S. policy toward Iran. While both the United States and Israel have imposed official silence, the Israeli signature on the U.S. assassination of Suleimani was striking from the start. The relentless focus, the meticulous planning, and ultimately the precise execution seemed a replica of a distinctly Israeli modus operandi—a way of doing business that the United States has borrowed and mimicked. This led some to wonder what role—inspirational, political, operational—Israel might have played in the effort that led to the death of Suleimani.
U.S. and Israeli collaboration in killing Iranian officials would not be new. The Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman’s 2018 book, Rise and Kill First, highlights the fact that many of the Mossad’s assassinations of Iranian nuclear and missile scientists were conducted in collaboration with the United States. In fact, the New York Times reported that Netanyahu was the only foreign leader whom the Trump administration informed of the operation. NBC News added that intelligence from Israel helped to confirm Suleimani’s location and details regarding his traveling party.
More than any other Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu has been obsessed with Iran, especially with Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu believes that Tehran is firmly committed to acquiring the bomb as the basis for its dream to dominate the Middle East. Hence, a nuclear Iran has been the single issue that has haunted Netanyahu since 2009.
This obsession is the source of Netanyahu’s total aversion to the 2015 nuclear deal the Obama administration struck with Iran. Netanyahu believes that the Iran deal is too weak to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons once the terms of the agreement expire. To sabotage the deal, Netanyahu was willing to risk the fundamentals of U.S.-Israeli relations by openly asking the U.S. Congress to vote against the Obama administration’s initiative.
Netanyahu’s effort in 2015 was both futile and inappropriate, but at least one person was impressed by it: Donald Trump. Indeed, Trump’s aversion to the Iran deal—by then, he had already referred to it as a “disaster”—was introduced into his campaign. When Netanyahu and Trump met at the White House in early 2017, the Israeli premier was already forcefully lobbying for the Trump administration to withdraw from it.
Beyond the unraveling of U.S. diplomatic accomplishments, Netanyahu’s influence on Trump is manifested through U.S.-Israel counterterrorism cooperation. The United States has often designated individuals and organizations as Foreign Terrorist Organizations at Israel’s behest. The April 2019 State Department designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was, according to Trump, made at Israel’s request.
The designation of the IRGC—a state entity—as a Foreign Terrorist Organization was an unprecedented step and a strategic misstep that has put U.S. citizens at risk. Indeed, the designation upped the ante and the result—increased belligerence—was predictable. Since the April designation, the IRGC has acted more directly against U.S. and allied interests throughout the Middle East, and, after the killing of its commander, that cycle of violence is likely to increase further.
The consequences of this corrupt alliance go far beyond the current personal and political needs of the two leaders. They constitute a devastating legacy for the United States as well as for Israelis and Palestinians alike. For the United States, it bankrupts the American brand in the Middle East. The unevenness of the plan is a carte blanche endorsement of the colonialist, apartheid-like project of the Israeli far-right—legitimizing it with a U.S. seal.
For Palestinians, the Trump plan is a blunt expression of contempt toward their national aspirations. No U.S. administration has ever shown such open hostility to the Palestinians. The plan is an endorsement of the Israeli far-right’s vision, but for the rest of Israel the Trump initiative is a crude intervention in the political, ideological, and cultural struggle for the soul of the country as it nears a watershed third election in one year—now only one month away.
By subordinating U.S. foreign policy to the Israeli far-right, Trump has ravaged the hopes of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. In truth, despite the lip service paid to the two-state solution, the Trump plan is a farewell to the dream of two independent states. Instead it will create permanent semi-autonomous Palestinian enclaves under Israeli control, thereby eternalizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The humiliation of the Palestinians is likely to embolden Palestinian terrorist groups, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad—and the latter has a robust relationship with Iran, which has supplied the group with arms for decades. Those rockets could soon take aim at innocent Israeli civilians, because it is unlikely that the United States and Israel have witnessed Iran’s final retaliation for the death of Suleimani.
The Trump-Netanyahu axis may or may not lead to electoral success, but it will without a doubt leave both Israel and the United States less safe.
Avner Cohen is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and a global fellow with the Wilson Center. He is the author of Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain With the Bomb. Twitter: @avnercohen123