Has Trump Been Good for Israel?
Trump has showered Netanyahu with foreign-policy favors, but a Biden win could be a harsh wake-up call for Israelis.
JERUSALEM—Few countries have been as invested in Donald Trump’s presidency as Israel, where a recent survey found that Israelis favor the incumbent by an almost 45 percent margin. (Conversely, only 27 percent of American Jews are expected to vote for Trump, who divulged in August that “the evangelicals are more excited … than Jewish people” about elements of his Israel strategy.) That said, an answer to the proverbial question of whether Trump has been “good for Israel” remains elusive.
Whereas other world leaders have often strained to maintain constructive relations with the Trump administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to stay high atop the president’s short list of favorite allies over the past four years. Now, after having been a conspicuous beneficiary of U.S. diplomatic bounty throughout Trump’s tenure, Israel is bracing for the impact of what could soon be a different reality.
Much of what Trump has bestowed on Israel has been rhetorical or symbolic in nature. In December 2017, Trump extended official U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and in May 2018, a new U.S. Embassy was unveiled in the city. In 2019, Trump signed a presidential proclamation affording recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed a declaration that the “establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.” Last week, Pompeo announced that Israeli citizens born in Jerusalem could now elect to list their place of birth as “Israel” in U.S. consular documents.
The recent conclusion of the Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, formalized and expanded an entente that had been fast-tracked already amid the dangers of an ascendant Iran. Trump’s determination—and sweeteners that he may have provided—to close this deal and a subsequent one with Sudan appears to have played a pivotal role as well.
More importantly for Israel, this newly tailored diplomatic paradigm has effectively revoked a de facto Palestinian “veto over peace and progress in our region,” in Netanyahu’s words, with a new cohort of Arab states prepared suddenly to reach agreements with Israel despite the stalemate in its conflict with the Palestinians.
On the flipside, Israel has not been spared tangible fallout from Trump’s erratic conduct of global affairs. In May 2017, an indiscreet Trump raised hackles in Israel when he shared privileged Israeli intelligence with Russia.
Israeli defense officials are sounding the alarm that, after consenting to deliver the F-35 stealth fighter to the UAE, Trump—ever the transactional figure—could also prove amenable to additional weapons sales that would erode Israel’s qualitative military edge. And on Iran, the premier external threat to Israel, Trump’s America First policy has often meant America alone: Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposition of tough prohibitions on Tehran notwithstanding, a diminished United States has been unsuccessful at persuading its former great-power partners to activate snapback sanctions against an emboldened Iran.
A Trump victory would likely see the continuation of these countervailing trends, with the United States acquiescing to Israeli unilateralism while continuing to step back from active involvement in the Middle East. (Russia could perhaps maneuver, as it has in Syria, to fill that vacuum.) The laconic foreign-policy agenda that Trump has proposed for a second term offers no hint of new directions.
But things will almost certainly change for Israel if pollsters are correct and Joe Biden captures the White House. Committed to restoring traditional U.S. alliances that have frayed under Trump, a new Democratic administration will be more inclined to work by international consensus. Israel’s position as a valued wingman of the United States will not be in jeopardy—Biden has so far rebuffed efforts by progressives to circumscribe the U.S. friendship with Israel—but Israelis should prepare for the return of a more measured approach that features, among other things, greater understanding for Palestinian viewpoints and a renewed push for compromise with Iran.
Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner