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.
Q. President Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. Under his presidency, Israel signed normalization agreements with two Arab countries, the UAE and Bahrain. Surely those acts are good for Israel’s regional status and security.
A. They are. The UAE agreement also bolsters Israel’s economy and ramps up regional defenses against Iran. And to
that short list we can add recent US success in arranging for Lebanon and Israel to negotiate their Mediterranean
economic zone border. If successful, those talks, which begin later this week, will also add to regional stability
Then there is the shelving of the threat of Israeli annexation in the West Bank thanks to the normalization agreement with the UAE. That’s good for Israel and the UAE and even for the Palestinians and for Jordan, which fears being made to pay the price for Palestinian unrest and revolt caused by Trump. Trump didn’t intend it that way, but we can generously credit him at least indirectly for the cancellation of a disastrous move by Israel that he had first encouraged and that his peace plan was about to catalyze.
Q. So, case closed?
A. Not by a long shot. Overall, Trump has been bad for Israel. And there is no indication that a second term would be any different.
Q. You’re presumably going to start with the poor neglected Palestinians. . .
A. Not a bad place to start, though hardly the most immediate area of presidential strategic neglect or
miscalculation. Still, Trump’s administration has deliberately and consciously impoverished and isolated the
Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. American diplomatic contact with the PLO has been
cut both in Washington (closing of the PLO embassy) and in East Jerusalem (closing of the US consulate that liaised
with the West Bank). US funding for the PA and for UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestinian refugees) has been cut.
Note that these institutions, now set adrift by Trump, are the MODERATE expression of Palestinian aims and goals,
unlike Gaza-based Hamas.
The idea, as with US sanctions on Iran (see below) is to choke the Palestinians economically into submission. The US end-game, the Trump peace plan’s Swiss-cheese map of a future Palestinian enclave mini-state, presents a parallel threat. Neither expression of Trump’s approach is working. Their genesis reflects the fact that the only strategic thinking that can conceivably be attributed to Trump in the Middle East (and elsewhere) is economic bullying (boycott) and coddling (arms sales).
But from Israel’s standpoint, Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ entails a far bigger cost. Without a peace process with the Palestinians, without even a mechanism for contact and discussion, Trump and Netanyahu are maneuvering Israel and Palestine into a one-state demographic reality characterized by apartheid and the demise of a democratic Zionist state. No one is offering a strategic alternative. Trump’s emissaries to Israel and the Palestinians, Adviser Jared Kushner and Ambassador David Friedman, are unabashedly in favor of the West Bank settlements that foreclose any hope of a solution that leaves Israel Jewish and democratic. That is Trump’s legacy, and that of the very cooperative Netanyahu.
Q. But the Palestinian issue is not on anyone’s immediate agenda. Lots can happen in the long term. Where’s the near-term damage of Trump’s other Middle East policies?
A. It is immediate, and it is of global strategic significance, meaning it is bad not only for Israel. This is not
just Israel and the Palestinians slowly sliding toward apartheid with Trump’s bumbling help. This is the prospect
of regional war and instability.
By pulling out of the JCPOA Iran-nuclear deal achieved under Obama and by imposing heavy sanctions, Trump hoped to force Iran into more far-reaching concessions and ultimately to bring down the Tehran regime. As noted above, this is the sort of purely economic approach that is apparently the only strategy Trump can grasp. As with the Palestinians, it has failed. And incidentally, alternative Iranian and Palestinian regimes achieved by US pressure would almost certainly be more aggressive and intransigent, not less.
In the case of Iran, thanks to Trump we are left with a restarted nuclear program and an ongoing grand strategy of expanding Persian Shi’ite hegemony in the Arab Levant, all the way up to Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon and Jordan’s with Iraq. To be fair, Trump inherited the territorially aggressive Iranian legacy from the Obama administration, which concentrated solely but successfully on constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And Trump’s targeted assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards general Qassim Soleimani temporarily slowed down the Iranian advance into Iraq and Syria. But rather than dealing with Iran’s Levant drive, Trump is encouraging it by withdrawing American troops from Iraq and Syria.
By the by, the US is also withdrawing from Afghanistan, which as a consequence will likely end up again with a Taliban regime. Remember 9/11.
The idea of extracting America from the Greater Middle East’s “endless wars” is a vote-getter in US elections. The logic and rationale of this approach reflects the dwindling importance of the Middle East in America’s global strategic considerations. We can debate whether the thinning of an American strategic presence in the Middle East is good, bad or simply necessary for America.
But is it good for Israel that the US is departing the region militarily? Certainly not when the outcome is Iranian expansionist aggression toward Israel, greatly enhanced Russian influence, and an Islamist hegemonic Turkey at Israel’s doorstep in Syria and in the Mediterranean.
It gets worse! Currently, the US is not a factor in dealing with civil war in Libya to Israel’s west and war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus to the north. Russia and Turkey are, and neither has Israel’s interests in mind. So while Washington’s role in arranging Lebanon-Israel talks about Mediterranean gas is admirable (again, the economic motive, reflected in Chevron’s takeover of Israel’s gas drilling), this is seemingly the exception that proves the rule of US abandonment of the region and, by extension, of Israel’s regional interests.
Lebanon, by the way, is in danger of Somalia-like fragmentation just north of Israel’s border. Only France is trying to help at the strategic-diplomatic level.
Q. Well, at least Trump is good for the Jews, and that’s good for Israel.
A. Trump has entered a strategic political alliance with America’s Evangelical Christians and, indirectly (they
have less political heft) with its ultra-Orthodox Jews, who by the way are no less messianic than the Evangelicals.
Netanyahu has happily followed suit, having molded his approach to American politics on Republicans, Evangelicals
and a conservative Jewish minority who give their blessing to his land-grab in the West Bank.
Where does all this lead? Israel’s messianic West Bank settlers can joke with their Evangelical financial supporters that when the messiah comes, if it’s Jesus for the second time then the Evangelicals were right but if it’s a first-timer then the Jews were right. But this lame joke misses the strategic point. At a moment of existential crisis for Israel, for example in war with Iran, Trump may find himself listening to Evangelical allies who council that this is the Armageddon they have been counting on, meaning, let the destruction run its course all the way to the End of Days. Back in May 2018 when the US Embassy in Jerusalem was inaugurated, what self-respecting Jew or friend of Israel did not feel nauseous listening to the benediction by Pastor Robert “You can’t be saved by being a Jew” Jeffress?
It's no accident that anti-Semitism, on the political left and right alike, has become more dangerous in America under Trump. He specializes in divisiveness.
Meanwhile, Trump and Netanyahu have managed to alienate the liberal American Jewish mainstream, historically Israel’s strategic ally. Is that good for Israel? Note the comment of Abe Foxman, director-emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, to the effect that Trump has launched a “frontal assault” on bipartisan US support for Israel, the bedrock of the US-Israel alliance.
Q. Has Trump caused indirect damage to Israel as well?
A. Israel has long viewed NATO as a quasi-ally. Indeed, decades ago it unsuccessfully sought membership in NATO.
But Trump has weakened NATO as a matter of policy. Israel is particularly vulnerable to global climate change.
Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement because he doesn’t believe in climate change or, for that matter, science.
Israel seeks strong commercial and strategic relationships with Europe and China; Trump’s confrontational China and
Europe policies render that more difficult.
All these are elements in Israel’s overall security well-being. Trump has weakened them. His policies have weakened US global influence. When Israel’s primary historic ally has less clout in the world, that too is bad for Israel.
Q. Your bottom line?
A. President Trump is not a strategic thinker. He is woefully uninformed about the world. He often neither reads
nor listens to intelligence briefings. He is all about money and the money-making angle in any relationship. In
this sense, he is incapable of being a true friend of any country, particularly one like Israel whose strategic
well-being is multi-dimensional and nuanced.
Former Head of Mossad Shavtai Shavit got it right last month: “President Donald Trump is not a man of vision, of defining goals, systematic staff work and conceiving strategies. . . . A superficial examination of his policy toward Israel in his first term proves this: every decision, proclamation or action of his connected to Israel stands alone, divorced from any diplomatic vision, strategy or comprehensive plan. It certainly does not reflect the long history of Israel-US relations that are founded on shared values and the American historical commitment to Israel.”
Shavit is a former intelligence chief. Did we mention that Israel’s intelligence chiefs almost universally have rejected as counter-productive Trump’s and Netanyahu’s approach to Iran’s nuclear project?
This Q & A is about Trump. But Trump and Netanyahu are a pair. The latter allied himself with Republicans and Evangelicals back in Obama’s day, thereby undermining US-Israel strategic consensus. Trump has vastly expanded the damage to the concept of across-the-board American and American Jewish support for Israel. The two leaders have nurtured one another’s disastrous policies toward the Palestinians and Iran. So let’s hear it for the normalization deal with the UAE and Bahrain. It is rare good news in an otherwise ruinous US-Israel reality under Trump.
For previous editions of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, go to the Index Page.