Trump is no friend of Israel, even if he says otherwise
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President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)
Deputy Editorial Page Editor
Feb. 2, 2020 at 1:00 p.m. GMT+1
Benjamin Netanyahu claimed last week that President Trump is “the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House.”
Could that possibly be true?
The Israeli prime minister’s case is pretty straightforward. In little more than a year, Trump has reversed half a century of U.S. Mideast policy to Israel’s benefit. He recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy there. He ratified Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And last week he approved Israel’s prospective annexation of the Jordan Valley and all of the settlements it has constructed since 1967 in the West Bank.
That last gift, delivered in the guise of last week’s “peace plan,” was particularly jaw-dropping. For decades, previous Republican and Democratic administrations have fought to restrain the settlements — several of them designated as illegal — to preserve the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
In theory, Trump’s plan allows for such a state. But it would lack many attributes of sovereignty, including control over its own territory, and so many conditions are attached to its creation — including Israel’s ultimate consent — that it is inconceivable it could come into being any time in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, 15 Jewish settlements inside Palestinian territories could soon become part of Israel, with a U.S. seal of approval.
Trump has lavished so many gifts on Netanyahu that even his Israeli opponents have been obliged to welcome them. That’s part of the point: The veteran prime minister is counting on Trump’s intervention to propel him to another term in office in a March election, despite his indictment last week on corruption charges.
So let’s stipulate: Trump is the greatest friend “Bibi” has ever had. But is he really Israel’s friend? That’s a much harder call.
The most important service a U.S. president can perform for Israel is acting to ensure its long-term survival. Harry S. Truman unquestionably did that when he recognized the new state in 1948, over the objections of his secretary of state. More recent presidents have sought to do it by brokering a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, without which Israel cannot attract full international acceptance — or remain both Jewish and democratic.
If Trump’s actions actually led to an Israeli-Palestinian peace, he would deserve the label of “greatest friend.” But more likely he is making a settlement far harder. Peace requires the consent of both sides, but neither Palestinian leaders nor the 4.7 million Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza are likely ever to accept Trump’s terms, which are drastically worse than those they rejected from Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert. Instead of 96 percent of the West Bank, Trump offers less than 70 percent, and even that is spotted with Israeli enclaves.
Trump imagines that the Arab dictators he has cultivated will strong-arm the Palestinians into swallowing this deal. They won’t. Instead, they are quietly betting that the plan will go nowhere, and they are probably right. That, however, won’t stop the territorial annexations Trump has endorsed, which will turbocharge the already-robust international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel — and perhaps endanger its fragile peace with Jordan.
Trump is also shredding the second big obligation of presidents toward Israel, which is ensuring that U.S. support for the Jewish state remains strong and bipartisan. His fervent embrace of Netanyahu and his annexationist agenda has managed to alienate even the most ardent pro-Israel Democrats. Three of them, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), issued statements last week warning against “unilateral actions” that would compromise the chances for a peace deal — by which they meant the land grabs Trump just encouraged.
All four of the leading Democratic candidates in Monday’s Iowa caucuses — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg — condemned Trump’s plan. They represent the growing part of the Democratic Party already fed up with Netanyahu. A Pew Research Center poll last year showed two-thirds of Democrats viewed his government unfavorably, while only a quarter supported it. Annexation will surely widen the gap.
Trump has virtually ensured that any Democrat who succeeds him will clash with Israel if Netanyahu or one of his allies is still in office. No doubt that is intentional: The favors for Israel are intended to aid Trump’s reelection by rallying evangelical Christians and polarizing Democrats. Never mind that that will weaken rather than strengthen Israel’s long-term support from the United States.
Netanyahu’s line in the White House East Room probably will be played over and over in Trump’s campaign ads. For some, maybe even many Americans, it will sound superficially plausible. It may be years before the likely truth emerges: that Trump has done more damage to Israel than any president before him.