Trump an unknown factor for US-Israel relations
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”.