Every American transition of power has significant implications for countries across the globe and especially for close American allies such as Israel. Indeed, a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is a key tenet of Israel’s security strategy. Thus, the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency comes with significant security implications for Israel. It seems likely that President Trump will have much stronger personal ties with Prime Minister Netanyahu than President Obama did, and this will certainly be a positive for the U.S.-Israel relationship. But there are broader questions about overall U.S. foreign policy under a Trump administration and what these shifts may mean for Israel’s security. No administration in recent memory has come into power with less clarity and more questions regarding its foreign policy agenda. Below I lay out the critical strategic questions that will be essential to understanding the overall implications of a Trump presidency for Israel.
What will be America’s posture and level of engagement in the Middle East?
The President-elect has spoken warmly about Israel and indicated in no uncertain terms that he will be deeply devoted to the U.S.-Israel relationship. But Israel does not exist in a bubble, and even as Trump has discussed his security commitment to Israel, he also indicated during the campaign that he would look to pull back from the Middle East and retrench. He has talked about cutting an agreement with Russia in Syria and stopping American support for the Syrian opposition, a step that would likely lead to an even more greatly empowered Iran on Israel’s northern border. And he has been highly critical of a number of the Gulf States who also depend on American assurances for their security.
But even as he has described this type of approach, he has also nominated as Secretary of Defense retired General James Mattis. Mattis is a former USCENTCOM Commander who is firmly committed to maintaining a strong American presence in the region, building stronger ties to America’s Arab allies, and aggressively countering Iran. It seems unlikely he would preside over an American withdrawal from the region. Trump is also cultivating a better relationship with Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which could be useful for strengthening Israeli-Egyptian-American ties and creating greater opportunities for security cooperation in the Sinai and elsewhere. And Trump has argued for a highly aggressive approach against ISIS – one also echoed by his national security advisor, retired General Mike Flynn.
If Trump radically pulls back America’s commitments in the Middle East or if he recklessly engages in confrontational behavior that leads to conflict, the end result will be a more unstable region and a less secure Israel. If he pursues the steadier approach outlined by Mattis and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson during their recent confirmation hearings, Israel and the United States will both be better off.
Will the United States continue to support the two-state solution?
It certainly is possible that President Trump will break with 50 years of American policy and move away from the two-state solution. In David Friedman, President-elect Trump has appointed a highly controversial deeply and conservative American ambassador to Israel. Friedman is a strong supporter of the settler movement and has all but rejected the two-state solution as both conceptually unwise and practically unworkable. Trump himself also came out very strongly against President Obama’s decision to abstain on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 and the follow-on speech by Secretary Kerry. If the president-elect follows through on his promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem without any kind of equivalent concession to the Palestinians, he will severely harm America’s ability to play an evenhanded role in trying to mediate the conflict and potentially trigger violence in the Palestinian territories.
On the other hand, Trump has also indicated that an agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the “ultimate deal” – one that he would like to successfully mediate. And both Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis have deep experience in the Arab world and are likely to see the conflict from a different perspective and have more influence on overall U.S. policy than the American ambassador in Israel.
If the Trump administration does decide to continue supporting the two-state solution, than the wisest approach would be to see if it could work with the Israeli government and incentivize it to take some of the steps outlined by Commanders for Israel’s Security in their Security First plan. Indeed, a better more trusting relationship between Netanyahu and Trump could hopefully open the way for greater Israeli flexibility.
Will the United States walk away from the Iran Nuclear Agreement?
Throughout the campaign, President-elect Trump slammed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and promised during a speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference last March to walk away from the deal. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has also started to publicly and privately indicate that he would like to have the agreement renegotiated and will make the case to President Trump.
On the other hand, during their confirmation hearings Tillerson and Mattis expressed a different view. Mattis indicated that while he would not have signed the agreement, the United States must keep its word and cannot walk away unilaterally. Tillerson indicated that as Secretary of State he would initiate a review to examine the future of the JCPOA. Even CIA Director nominee Mike Pompeo, who as a member of Congress was a vociferous opponent of the deal, hedged during his confirmation indicating that if confirmed “my role will change.”
If the United States walks away from the agreement, it will be able to reimpose sanctions in name, but it is unlikely that it will get the kind of international support that is necessary to vigorously enforce a sanctions regime. Moreover, Iran would likely restart enrichment of uranium and we could very soon find ourselves back in the crisis days of 2011 and 2012 as Israel again starts to examine the possibility of military action or encourages the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear program.
A more likely approach is that the Trump administration keeps the nuclear agreement at least at first and takes a hard line on Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East, including its support for Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and the Houthis in Yemen. But it will be tough to square such an approach if it cuts a deal with Putin in Syria, which will ultimately empower Assad and Iran.
How will the United States treat allies around the globe – and will it remain committed to the Western-led international order?
Even if the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong, if America is seen as a less reliable ally around the globe it will hurt U.S. prestige and influence, which will also harm Israel’s security. A strong America is good for Israel and a strong Israel is good for America. During the campaign President-elect Trump discussed backing away from NATO if our partners did not raise their defense expenditures. He questioned the U.S.-Japan alliance and stated that it may be OK for Japan and Saudi Arabia to get nuclear weapons so that they do not have to rely on the United States. And his protectionist policies and seeming willingness to stoke tensions with China and potentially provoke a trade war undercut another key tenet of post-World War II American policy.
The good news is that since the election, his advisors have voiced a much more traditional approach to foreign policy. Tillerson and Mattis both emphasized in their hearings the importance of NATO and of the American-led international order, which is buttressed by the Western alliance system. And Tillerson also broke with Trump on trade.
If a Trump administration maintains America’s commitments to its allies and continues to uphold the post World War II international order based on free trade, strong alliances, and the promotion of Western values, then Israel’s security will thrive as it remains a close partner – and maybe even perceived as closer – under Trump. However, if instead Trump begins to unravel elements of the international order, pursue protectionist policies, and walk away from traditional allies, the end result will be bad for all of America’s closest partners, including Israel. Indeed, this destabilizing and highly negative development would on balance be much more detrimental to Israel’s security than any positive gains it may draw from a better personal relationship between Netanyahu and Trump.