Trump an unknown factor for US-Israel relations

Sunday 25/09/2016
US Republican Party candidate for president Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference in Washington, last March.

Washington - At first glance, Donald Trump and Hillary Clin­ton seem united in their support for Israel but while Clinton is display­ing a steadfast commitment to the Jewish state, some of Trump’s more controversial statements and his lack of political experience make the direction of US-Israeli relations under his presidency hard to pre­dict.
“Trump is a big unknown,” said Dan Arbell, a Middle East special­ist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s hard to say what campaign slogans mean for actual policy.”
Because the billionaire business­man has sometimes strayed from the United States’s often unques­tioned commitment to Israel, the question is whether a Trump White House would change things.
Some analysts doubt it. “US-Is­raeli relations have a life separate from the president of the United States,” said Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Policy Center in Washing­ton. “The US and Israel shared im­portant common interests.”
Trump would not be the first pres­ident without a deep knowledge of the complexities of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. The 70-year-old real estate mogul is trying to present himself as a strong leader, unfettered by traditional Washing­ton thinking and ready to shake things up, while Clinton, a former secretary of State, is advertising her knowledge and experience on the international stage.
Trump raised eyebrows last year when he said that he would be “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that he was not sure whether Israel was prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to get a peace deal. Trump was booed at the Republican Jewish Coalition forum last December when he re­fused to promise he would recog­nise Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.
The Republican candidate has since rowed back, saying: “There is nobody more pro-Israel than I am.”
Stephen Kinzer, a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for Interna­tional Studies at Brown University, said Trump was inconsistent. “It depends on what day you ask him,” Kinzer said. But Trump had at least shown with his remarks that taboos in US-Israeli relations could be bro­ken by a candidate without wreck­ing his election campaign in the process, Kinzer said.
Clinton’s goal is to come across as unsurpassed in her dedication to Israel. She used an interview with Israeli broadcaster Channel Two in September to point to statements by Trump that suggested he would use nuclear weapons against the Is­lamic State (ISIS) in Syria, close to Israel, and would allow Saudi Ara­bia to obtain nuclear weapons.
Kinzer said Clinton was so com­mitted to Israel that she made sure the words “settlement” and “oc­cupation” were not mentioned in the election platform of the Demo­cratic Party. “She will bend over backward to accommodate” Israel, Kinzer said.
The former secretary of State has announced she would invite Isra­el’s prime minister to Washington for talks if she wins in November, signalling a determination to make a new start in relations after a frosty period under US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who have done little to hide their mutual an­tipathy.
Despite the personal frictions, the Obama administration recently signed an agreement pledging $38 billion in US military assistance to Israel over ten years, the largest aid package the United States ever has given to any country.
Bryen said the agreement reflect­ed the importance of US-Israeli ties no matter who occupied the Oval Of­fice. Given the conflict in Syria and potential trouble in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the region, Israel was of crucial importance for Washing­ton, Bryen said, adding: “You need a country that is reliable, that is sta­ble and that has good intelligence.”
While Israel’s strategic signifi­cance for the United States is not in doubt, the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestin­ians, a focal point of US policy in the past, is not expected to attract much attention from the next ad­ministration in Washington.
Arbell said Clinton as president would probably try to avoid some of the “mistakes” of Obama’s team by not stressing the issue of Jewish settlements. “The focus will be on a package of steps the administration will expect Israel to make”, while also formulating demands on the Palestinian side, he said. “She will not put Israel on the spot.”
Arbell also said he expected a Clinton administration to work with Israel to calm concerns over the nuclear agreement with Iran. “It would be a good chance to set up an US-Israeli working group to monitor Iran’s adherence to the deal and other Iranian behaviour,” he said.
Clinton has defended the Iran deal, telling Israel’s Channel Two that it had “made Israel safer”. She also did not exclude the possibility of giving her husband, former US president Bill Clinton, some kind of function in US-Israeli relations to “benefit from his experience and expertise”.