January 23, 2017 - Trump and Israel: the beginning

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses what we can say at such an early stage regarding Trump and Israel; the inauguration speech; Trump's pledge that his son-in-law will tackle the peace process and that his administration will move the US embassy to Jerusalem; and where “alternative facts” enter the US-Israel picture.

 

Q. We’re having this discussion barely three days after the inauguration. What can we say at such an early stage regarding Trump and Israel?

A. What will we ever be able to say in concrete terms? When quoting President Trump we are dealing with a highly inflated ego, a totally unique take on truth and facts, and someone who changes his position at the flick of a tweet. So any comments I make must be understood as provisional at best.

Still, he and his young administration have already said things we cannot ignore when it comes to America and Israel: in the inaugural address, regarding the peace process, regarding Jerusalem, and regarding facts and “alternative facts”.

 

Q. Start with the inauguration speech.

A. Until we are told differently or confront contrary policies, Trump’s dramatic inaugural address must be understood as a foundational document of his administration. As noted, it comprises messages for Israel, too.

First, concerning US defense aid and other forms of aid to foreign countries, Trump stated “For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry. . . . subsidized the armies of other countries. . . . defended other nations’ borders. . . . made other countries rich, while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon.” That could perhaps apply to Trump’s take on NATO, but it could also apply to Israel. The $38 billion in defense aid to Israel that President Obama signed off on before leaving office is not sacrosanct. There are circles in the US security community and in critical political quarters that have long argued for cutting Israel’s security aid. Is the president laying the foundations?

Second, Trump noted that “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. . . . Every decision . . . on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families.” Does this refer only to Mexico and China, or could Trump’s “America first” concept conceivably be applied to the US-Israel special relationship and the concept of shared values? Since Trump’s inaugural address never mentioned a single foreign country, we can’t know.

Is “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone” the next step in the US withdrawal from the Middle East? That might be a welcome statement if applied to misbegotten American attempts to impose electoral democracy on a fragmented and conflicted country like Iraq in 2003 where the societal foundations clearly did not exist. But not if applied to human rights issues in Israel and the West Bank, where the universal human rights standards supported hitherto by Washington are highly relevant. Where is this statement meant to apply today?

Note in this context that the Trump administration, in perhaps its first foreign policy decision, has opted not to attend the Syria peace conference convened on Monday, January 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan, by Russia, Turkey and Iran (it turned down Russia’s invitation and sent an observer). Until now the US was one of the conveners, usually in Geneva, of conferences on Syria. If Trump is essentially leaving Syria to the Russians and Iranians, Israel has good reason to be apprehensive. So do Jordan and Lebanon.

Third, concerning the battle against Islamist terrorism, Trump vowed to “reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the earth”. Leaving aside the hyperbole--eradicating terrorism from the face of the earth sounds suspiciously like a recipe for Russian-style scorched-earth retaliation that targets hospitals--the intention is welcome to anyone worried about ISIS and Qaeda. But how does it jibe with Trump’s protest against subsidizing and defending other countries? Does he think Jordan can defend itself against Islamist terrorism without American help?

Further, and at the risk of nit-picking, use of the term “Islamic terrorism” rather than Islamist terrorism points to a dangerous inclination to generalize at the expense of innocent Muslims. We increasingly encounter the problem in Israel, when a Palestinian Arab who engages in attacks directed against the occupation--the IDF, the Israel Police--is immediately accused by ministers and police officials, with no foundation in the facts, of belonging to ISIS. (See “alternative facts”, below.)

Fourth, where does the American Jewish community find its place in a Trump constituency which seems to be located between “the urban sprawl of Detroit” and “the wind-swept plains of Nebraska”? The American Jewish community is one of Israel’s two strategic allies, but it needs to function in sync with Israel’s second strategic ally, the United States itself. Trump’s constituency--his voters--is characterized as the victim of “American carnage”. I doubt most American Jews--indeed, most Americans--feel a sense of belonging to that determination.

If a large majority of the American Jewish community feels disenfranchised, this affects its core interests in many ways. One way, for example, appears to find expression in the current wave of anti-Semitic attacks on synagogues and Jewish community centers. Another is the American Jewish relationship with Israel, particularly if Israel’s leadership feels extremely comfortable with Trump’s policies because the new administration is lenient regarding settlements and human rights in the West Bank.

 

Q. But hasn’t Trump already pledged that his son-in-law would tackle the peace process? And hasn’t his administration declared it was beginning to deal with moving the US embassy to Jerusalem?

A. On inauguration eve Trump publicly told Jared Kushner, “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can. All my life I’ve been hearing that’s the toughest deal to make, but I have a feeling Jared is going to do a great job.” Let’s be honest: the likelihood of Kushner successfully brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace is low, if not zero. Let’s recall that originally, during the campaign, it was Trump himself who vowed to take on the job. Now he’s sending Jared. Get ready for the cop-out: I have a feeling that six months from now Trump will say something like, “Jared did his best. If he couldn’t do it, no one could. So I’m abandoning this peace project”.

As for the embassy move, all we have is a White House statement that the administration is “at the very beginning stage of even discussing” the project. Well, at least that demonstrates prudence. Could Trump actually be listening to the warnings from the Arab world?

 

Q. Where do “alternative facts” enter the US-Israel picture?

A. Alternative facts is the Orwellian term coined by Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s White House counselor, in supporting the new administration’s claim of record attendance at the inauguration. This, in the face of TV images of the half-empty Mall along with Metro passenger and DC Police figures that argue unanimously for a relatively low attendance compared to, say, the Obama 2009 inauguration.

Trump made the same argument in his speech at CIA headquarters, to the cheers of some 200 CIA employees. He also accused the media of creating “fake news” regarding his relationship with the US intelligence community after he had recourse to the Nazi era to describe the CIA and the other US services. Upon hearing this, I couldn’t help recalling something one of my superiors in Israeli intelligence told me back in the 1970s. He was offering me and others who worked with him instruction in the art of intelligence analysis. He quoted a CIA counterpart who stated his golden rule for analysis: “reverence for the facts”.

Reverence for the facts. I never forgot that advice, passed on second-hand from the CIA. It was not always simple to keep in mind inconvenient facts when trying to draw up the most objective assessment possible and when necessary to speak truth to power. But it was absolutely vital.

Where is reverence for the facts when CIA people applaud their new commander-in-chief as he offers up absurd “alternative facts” on day one of his administration? How much of Trump and Conway and their colleagues is liable to rub off on the US intelligence establishment in the course of the next four years? Some ten days ago, Yedioth Aharonoth security affairs commentator Ronen Bergman, a journalist with excellent sources, cited Israeli intelligence officials relating that their American counterparts had warned them not to turn over sensitive Israeli intelligence to the US intelligence establishment lest Trump deliver it to the Russians.

Sadly, then, we have to ask ourselves what the Trump team’s world of alternative facts means for the most sensitive dimensions of the Israeli-American partnership: strategic intelligence, strategic cooperation, and credibility and trust between partners. Where is the America that so much of Israel has always seen, justifiably or not, as its role model?

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