I supported President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem because that has always been Israel’s capital, and I wasn’t worried that it would harm a “peace process” that was already defunct. The muted reaction to the move across the Arab world — everywhere except in Hamas-controlled Gaza — suggests that it wasn’t as big of a problem as many had feared.
But I strongly disagree with the emerging conservative talking point that Trump “is the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history.” He may be the most closely aligned with Israel’s current government, led by a fellow scandal-plagued right-winger, but that doesn’t mean Trump is safeguarding Israel’s interests. He is, in fact, inflicting long-term damage on the U.S.-Israeli alliance.
What’s Trump doing about the No. 1 threat that Israel faces — namely, from Iran? He’s making it worse. To be sure, Trump did what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. But is that really in Israel’s interest, given that, by all indications, Iran was abiding by the agreement? Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, doesn’t think so. He said, “Right now, the agreement, with all its faults, is working and is putting off realization of the Iranian nuclear vision by 10 to 15 years.”
Trump is potentially lifting the limits on Iran’s nuclear development, heightening the existential danger to the Jewish state, without offering a Plan B. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech Monday was a wish list masquerading as a strategy. He outlined 12 demands, ranging from Iran abandoning its nuclear and ballistic- missile programs to ending support for proxy forces across the Middle East. And how is the United States going to achieve this ambitious agenda? With unilateral sanctions. Good luck with that.
The United States may be able to use secondary sanctions to coerce European firms into cutting ties with Iran, but it won’t make much difference. The top markets for Iranian oil and other products are China ($14.5 billion), India ($5.6 billion) and Turkey ($1.3 billion). There is scant chance that any of them will stop dealing with Iran, and Trump has little leverage to compel them to do so. He hasn’t had much luck coercing Beijing on North Korea or on its trade deficit with the United States; Iran isn’t even on the radar screen of Sino-American relations. Far from being crippled by U.S. sanctions, Iran may see its revenue rise because the price of oil has increased 160 percent since 2016.
And yet the Trump administration has no plan to stymie Iranian designs beyond imposing sanctions and hoping for the best. Pompeo demanded that Iran withdraw from Syria, but it’s the United States that is more likely to pull out because of Trump’s isolationist instincts, leaving that country to Iran’s tender mercies. Israel will be forced to escalate its attacks on Iranian bases in Syria, raising the risk of an all-out war that could lead to tens of thousands of rockets raining down on Israel. Trump isn’t doing Israel any favors in Syria.
In truth, Trump is doing long-term damage to Israel by politicizing the U.S. alliance. That Trump sees Israel primarily in a domestic political context — as a way to win Republican votes — was evident at the ceremony to open the new embassy. In the front row sat casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a mega-donor to both Trump and Netanyahu. Also in attendance was Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who needs Jewish support in his bid to win a Senate seat from incumbent Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Giving the invocations were two fundamentalist bigots — pastors Robert Jeffress and John Hagee — who support Israel primarily because they are eager to usher in Armageddon. And, of course, the royal couple, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, were the center of attention.
Entirely missing were any Democrats. (You know, the opposition party?) Among the uninvited was Daniel B. Shapiro, President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, who still lives in that country — and who supported the embassy relocation. This exclusionary attitude stands in contrast to the efforts of previous presidents to maintain bipartisan backing for Israel. The Obama administration, for example, included Republican lawmakers and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley in the U.S. delegation to Shimon Peres’s funeral in 2016.
Trump is, with Netanyahu’s connivance, exacerbating a dangerous trend: the end of the bipartisan consensus on Israel. Conservatives have become increasingly pro-Israel, liberals increasingly pro- Palestinian. A recent Pew poll found that nearly twice as many liberal Democrats sympathize with the Palestinians than with Israel. This is a big problem for Israel’s future, unless one assumes that Republicans will hold power forever.
The last Democratic administration was more confrontational with Israel than the one before it; expect the next one to be even more so. The more that Trump — a president who is disliked by more than 50 percent of Americans — becomes identified with Israel, the less popular Israel is likely to become. His embrace of Israel is even more neuralgic in other countries, where his popularity level is approaching negative numbers. Trump may not care but supporters of Israel should.