Policy vs. personality in Middle East politics.
TEL AVIV — What makes the United States a good ally to Israel? What makes a president of the United States a good partner?
I pondered these questions frequently during nearly six years as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, and they have renewed relevance as President Trump prepares to undertake his first visit here. The answers — which have less to do with policy, and more to do with personal qualities and management — may be less obvious than they appear.
Obama, of course, had well-documented challenges both in his relationship with his counterpart, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his perception among the Israeli public. Real policy differences over Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran caused innumerable disagreements, many of them quite public. But during my time representing the United States here, I found that the caricature of universal Israeli hostility to Obama was overstated. On his own visit to Israel in 2013, he made a very positive impression on the Israeli public as a friend who was deeply committed to their well-being and security.
But it was never hard to find Israelis who believed (mistakenly) that Obama was genuinely unfriendly to Israel; many considered him aloof, distant and naive about the Middle East. A final dispute over the United States’ decision not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli settlements at the end of last year, according to a January 2017 poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, drove the number of Israelis calling Obama “unfriendly” to Israel up to 57 percent.
So after eight years of often tense relations, some right-wing Israelis heralded Trump’s surprise election in November in nearly messianic terms: the arrival of a president who “at last” would support Israel unconditionally and not pressure the country to limit settlement growth or make concessions to the Palestinians. Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, declared, “Trump’s victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state.”
But only a few months into Trump’s term, and after the events of recent days, Israelis already seem to be wondering how well this change will work out for them.
The early perceptions that Trump would reverse all of Obama’s policy decisions and never challenge Israel very quickly proved inaccurate. So far, his administration has embarked on a much more traditional approach of seeking to restrain Israeli settlements, curtail Palestinian violence and incitement, and revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a two-state solution, with the support of key Arab states. Indeed, some of the same Israelis who praised Trump now criticize him for his friendly meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or his failure to quickly move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, warned Trump last weekend not to divide Jerusalem, while urging that the embassy be moved. On Iran, Trump has passed up opportunities to scrap the nuclear deal, opting to maintain its essential framework.
Israelis do appreciate Trump’s tougher rhetorical approach to Iran, his expressed antagonism toward Islamic extremists and his cozy relationship with moderate Sunni Arab states, such as Trump’s first stop on this trip, Saudi Arabia. There has been much enthusiasm in Israel about Trump’s campaign statements, his advisers, even his Jewish family members. The Israel Democracy Institute poll in January found that 69 percent of Israelis expected Trump to be “friendly” toward Israel. Even as concerns have crept into the thinking of right-leaning Israelis, Netanyahu has repeatedly praised Trump as “a true friend.”
With Obama, Israelis may not always have gotten everything they wanted. But they always got consistency. Obama held as a firm principle the idea that the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security was unconditional. We and the Israelis could argue (and did) about issues we disagreed on — Obama always told those of us on his team that he deemed the relationship mature enough and durable enough to withstand such differences — but they needed to know that the United States was a reliable ally when it mattered most. And he delivered. Our joint research and development and U.S. funding produced dramatic breakthroughs in Israeli missile defense, including the lifesaving Iron Dome system. We signed the largest-ever military assistance package, worth $38 billion, enabling Israel to outfit its air force with advanced F-35 aircraft and securing its regional military advantage. The United States gave Israel full backing to defend itself, whether against rocket and tunnel attacks by Hamas in Gaza or attempts to smuggle dangerous weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But even more than these dramatic examples, what Israeli security officials told me they came to appreciate was Obama’s style of leadership: steady, thoughtful, knowledgeable. They knew that when a sensitive matter was raised with him that required U.S. support — from expanding joint missile defense capabilities, to pooling our intelligence resources, to supporting Israel’s ability and legitimacy to conduct military operations in Syria to interdict weapons shipments to Hezbollah — he had the maturity, the discipline and the judgment to reach well-informed decisions that benefited Israel’s security. The result was a period of unprecedented intimacy between our militaries and intelligence services. That doesn’t mean we always agreed, or that leaks and other communications snafus never occurred. Both sides were frustrated, for example, by unauthorized leaks regarding Israeli military operations in Syria, and U.S. diplomatic strategy on Iran. But I was struck by the depth of appreciation that senior Israeli military officers and intelligence officials expressed for Obama’s contributions to Israel’s security, often drawing a contrast with sentiments expressed by their politicians or the public. Amos Gilad, a longtime senior defense official who recently retired from government service, told me: “It’s easy to criticize Obama. But on the military front, the relationship was incredible.”
Contrast that with the emerging portrait of Trump. His unpredictability, which plays out daily on his Twitter feed, was already a source of anxiety even before the recent revelations. Israelis now have to ask which Trump will show up for work each day — the friend who pledges his loyalty or the adolescent who can lash out at allies such as Australia and Canada, and perhaps one day Israel? His lack of knowledge, compounded by his aversion to reading and short attention span, means he will not be prepared when issues critical to Israel’s security are brought to him for decision. His carelessness with sensitive Israeli information, including, reportedly, his shocking impulse to share it with Russian officials without Israel’s permission, has shaken the confidence of the Israeli intelligence services in the reliability of the United States as a partner. And his reputation as a president indifferent to democratic values and institutions and enamored of authoritarian leaders is harming the United States’ standing globally, which is never good for Israel. Israelis say that when the United States catches a cold, they get a fever.
Israeli officials, taking no chances on souring the relationship, are being cautious not to be quoted expressing their concerns, especially in the run-up to Trump’s visit. And relations between the militaries and intelligence services remain close and professional. But off the record, officials are beginning to acknowledge that something has changed. The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth this past week quoted an Israeli intelligence official as saying: “If Trump, even if out of naivete or a lack of knowledge, did leak information to the Russians, there is now a significant risk to sources we have devoted years to acquiring and to work methods … We need to reevaluate whether and which information we share with the Americans.” That’s a significant blow to the confidence our alliance depends on.
This coming week, Israelis will have the chance to observe Trump up close when he visits. Will they like what they see, and appreciate the undoubtedly friendly sentiments he will express and his emphasis on areas of policy agreement? Or will he reinforce their worries that the United States, their best ally, is now in the hands of an erratic, unreliable leader?
Israel’s late president, Shimon Peres, liked to quote the advice his mentor, David Ben-Gurion, gave President John F. Kennedy when they met following JFK’s election: The best way you can help Israel, Ben-Gurion told him, is “by being a great President of the United States.”
I hear the anxiety of Israelis, who wonder what will become of their alliance with the United States when we have a president who strays so far from Ben-Gurion’s standard.