How Trump and Bibi’s Special Bond Damaged the U.S.-Israel Alliance
Our would-be strongman is gone but if Israel’s clings to power, what’s left of a decades-long bond between the two countries isn’t likely to survive much longer.
The Trump administration’s relationship with Israel was a lie wrapped in a fantasy inside an illusion. For the Israeli right, U.S. evangelicals, and America’s most hardcore Israel-boosters, the past four years seemed to be a golden age. The U.S. embassy was moved to Jerusalem. Subway stops and mountain villages in Israel were named after Trump. The U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister were living a romance that rivaled even that of Trump and his little love dumpling in Pyongyang.
Now, as we approach 100 days since Trump has left office, the truth is being revealed. The lie at the heart of the relationship was that the U.S. evangelicals that were his base actually cared about Israel. The fantasy wrapped around that particular lie was the Rapture. The real reason they cared was they needed Israel to get to the religious happy ending foretold in the Christian bible and that, of course, does not turn out so well for the Jews. The lie Trump told his evangelical supporters at home and his Israeli ones abroad was that the policies he introduced would not largely be reversed once he left office.
For the Israelis who worshipped Trump, it is now becoming clear that he was just a spray-tanned idol making long-term promises he could not keep. Indeed, this past week has confirmed that key elements of Israel’s special status in Washington may be in jeopardy—in large part as a consequence of Trump-era policies.
This week, J-Street, the more progressive—which is to say humane and sensible—of the Washington organizations devoted to the U.S.-Israel relationship, held its annual meeting. Five thousand people were in virtual attendance. The turn-out and the quality of speakers—including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and legions of other top U.S. and Israeli political leaders—was a sign of the relative ascendancy of a group that not so long ago was seen as far less influential than the older, right-leaning America-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC). No longer.
With a Democrat in the White House and Democrats holding majorities in the Senate and House—and AIPAC having over recent years served as a platform for increasingly partisan, pro-GOP messages from Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies—J-Street sent a clear message that it had arrived at a moment of influence unrivaled in its previous 14 years of existence.
Of all those who spoke, the remarks of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren drew the most attention. Warren lamented that the two-state solution, long recognized as essential to an equitable, lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace, was on “life support” due to the “disastrous” policies of Trump. She condemned Trump for “undermining 50 years of U.S. leadership as an effective mediator by abandoning any pretense of neutrality, and by jumping directly into the peace process in a way that put a thumb on the scales by giving a green light to settlements, cutting off aid and communication with the Palestinians” and by steps including moving the embassy and promoting an overtly pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian peace plan.
The senator’s comment that garnered the most attention, however, was a suggestion that would dramatically reset the way the U.S. and Israel deal with each other. She argued the U.S. should condition the provision of U.S. military aid to Israel on that country’s commitment to seeking a just two-state solution with the Palestinians. She said if the U.S. truly seeks this objective, “it would be irresponsible not to consider all the tools we have at our disposal. One of those is restricting military aid from being used in the occupied territories.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, who also spoke at the event, amplified the same call. “I strongly believe that we must be willing to bring real pressure to bear, including restricting U.S. aid, in response to moves by either side that undermine chances for peace.” Sanders also condemned Trump for his partnership with Netanyahu, and “working with them to entrench a permanent one-state reality.”
Their views are signs of a shift in the nature of the conversation about Israel that is taking place right now in Washington. This shift has been apparent from the first days of the Biden administration. While Biden and his team have reaffirmed America’s support for Israel, they too have been explicit about a change in policy from Trump, Pompeo & company. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a February call with the Israeli foreign minister that it is “the Biden administration’s belief that the two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state.” This is essentially a reversal of the Trump’s embrace of annexation, Pompeo’s refusal to reaffirm U.S. support for the two-state solution, and the administration’s decision that products made in settlements within the Palestinian territory could be labeled “Made in Israel.” Rejoining the UN Human Rights Council, which Trump left at Netanyahu’s urging because the organization was so critical of Israel, is another sign of this de-Trumpification of our policies.
But the current moment marks more than a simple shift in views between Democratic and Republican administrations. Bigger changes have been afoot for the past decade. Netanyahu had a sour relationship with the Obama administration and began, during that time, to more openly side with the GOP, actively playing a partisan role in U.S. politics. His robust support of Trump only exacerbated this as did the role each leader played in trying to shore up the electoral prospects of the other with public displays of affection or the creation of carefully timed “victories” to help each other’s political fortunes.
Further, Netanyahu’s ever more inhumane and intransigent stance towards the Palestinians and his embrace of authoritarian and anti-democratic measures—from denying entry to Israel for those involved in boycotts of the country, to passage of a nation-state law that stipulated that only Jews have “the exclusive right to national self-determination” in Israel—have made it clear that he himself has become the most prominent obstacle to the kind of policies the Biden team and many Democrats advocate.
Warren was withering in her emphasis on this point. She sharply observed the charges of corruption against Netanyahu and his inability to form a new government and stated, “the majority that opposes him must decide what to do next. Will they continue to fight among themselves and, in the process, prop up a corrupt leader who put his own interests ahead of those of his country?” Or, she asked, will they “begin the difficult task of rooting out corruption and reinstating the rule of law?”
Her argument was made particularly resonant as this week saw Netanyahu rebuffed again and again in his latest effort to cling to power. He failed in parliamentary maneuvers he’d hoped would have made him able to seek direct election to the prime ministership even if he could not cobble together a majority in the Knesset to support his candidacy. And one-time ally Naftali Bennett announced his willingness to try to form a government if Netanyahu could not. This in turn led Netanyahu to condemn Bennett. Which in turn led former Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman to say, “We have never seen a prime minister so frightened and hysterical. He is S-C-A-R-E-D.”
For those scared for the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship, a frightened Bibi may be good news for all the reasons cited by Warren. Should he cling to power, the rift between this administration and the Israelis is almost certain to grow—especially as the Biden team resets the relationship, and shows more support for Palestinians and for U.S. re-entry into the Iran nuclear deal. Combine that with a shifting center of power in Washington, a strategic realignment that has the U.S. less dependent on Middle Eastern oil and less preoccupied with Middle East wars as it shifts its focus to the Indo-Pacific region, and it is easy to imagine new setbacks for the U.S.-Israel relationship that continues to have arrogant, extremist Bibi at the center of it.
No, the only hope that the fool’s golden years of the Trump-Bibi vintage U.S.-Israel partnership will not be followed by a pronounced atrophying of the special relationship is that Israel’s wannabe Trump goes the way of his American counterpart and America’s new president gains a new partner in Israel as committed as Biden is to restoring his country’s damaged democracy, fighting corruption, and undoing the deeply ingrained, systemic racism that threatens its standing in the world.