The Same Old Same Old?
U.S. President Donald J. Trump has reversed himself on several important promises regarding Israel. On the campaign trail, he pledged to be a stalwart friend of the Jewish state, but some of his initial policies actually mirror those of former President Barack Obama.
Trump had vowed to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Less than a week after taking office, however, he reneged. U.S. policy officially states the embassy should be moved. In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital and requiring the relocation by May 31, 1999. The law, signed by President Bill Clinton, has never been implemented, apparently out of fear that the move would inflame Arab opinion.
Jordan’s King Abdullah has warned Trump against relocating the embassy because it could lead to violence and further complicate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since then, the Trump administration reportedly sent a message to the Palestinian Authority assuring it the embassy would remain in Tel Aviv.
Trump has also reversed his support for the expansion of Israeli “settlements” in the West Bank. Now he says such settlements could hurt the chances of brokering a peace agreement. “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace,” he said.
Even the composition of Trump’s national security team suggests his foreign policy toward Israel may end up being similar to Obama’s.
At the National Security Council (NSC), Trump retained Yael Lempert, a controversial Obama staffer. Lempert “is considered one of the harshest critics of Israel on the foreign policy far left,” according to Middle East Analyst Lee Smith, who quoted a former White House official: “From her position on the Obama NSC, she helped manufacture crisis after crisis in a relentless effort to portray Israel negatively and diminish the breadth and depth of our alliance. Most Democrats in town know better than to let her manage Middle East affairs. It looks like the Trump administration has no idea who she is or how hostile she is to the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Amid growing criticism, it remains unclear how long Lempert will remain at the NSC.
At the State Department, the role of Michael Ratney, a top advisor to former Secretary of State John Kerry, has been expanded to include Israeli-Palestinian issues. In July 2016, a Senate investigation disclosed that Ratney, who was the U.S. consul in Jerusalem between 2012 and 2015, oversaw $465,000 in U.S. grants to the OneVoice Movement, a left-wing group that waged a clandestine campaign to smear Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and remove him from office. Ratney admitted he deleted emails containing information about the Obama administration’s relationship with the nonprofit group.
Trump’s State Department recently invited Jibril Rajoub, a Palestinian official known for promoting the murder and kidnapping of Israelis, into the United States for high-level meetings. Rajoub was sentenced in 1970 to life in prison for attacking an Israeli army bus. He served 15 years but was released in a 1985 prisoner exchange. Since then, he has repeatedly praised Palestinian terrorists who kill Israeli civilians.
“The embrace of Rajoub raises profound questions as to whether President Donald Trump has a coherent policy toward Israel or, as seems more likely, disjointed policies are emerging,” said foreign affairs columnist Lawrence Haas.
Historian Daniel Pipes worries that Trump may follow Obama’s footsteps and ultimately turn against Israel. “I…wouldn’t be surprised if [Trump] turned against Israel, seeing it as the intractable party because that is what often happens,” Pipes said. “Look at Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama: they make efforts and they get frustrated that the Israelis don’t give more because there is an enduring belief that if only the Israelis gave more, the Palestinians would relent and stop being rejectionists and everything would be fine. So, I am worried.”