Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement last month that the United States no longer considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal reversed 50 years of U.S. policy. The move should be read as the latest step in President Donald Trump’s own reelection campaign. Spoiling for a fight with Democrats over Israel, Trump has sought to cast himself as, in the words of a Jerusalem Post columnist, the “most pro-Israel president in history.” Moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognizing the city as the country’s capital, endorsing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and cutting aid to the Palestinians have all been part of this strategy. Trump recognizes that such actions help to shore up his Evangelical Christian base and appeal to influential U.S. Jews. He also probably believes these policies will curry favor with independents, among whom Israel remains popular, and enable him to smear Democrats as “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Israel,” hoping to pick off Jewish voters in the 2020 election.
While Trump’s policies have been popular in Israel, his record is far less “pro-Israel” than it appears on the surface. In particular, his support of Israeli territorial ambitions has obscured another, far less favorable legacy on Israel he will leave behind: The degree to which he has ignored and even undermined Israeli security. When contemplating U.S. action (or inaction) in the Middle East, Trump has time and again proved indifferent, even callous, to Israeli concerns. This pattern of neglect toward Israel’s security is causing consternation in Jerusalem, as can be seen in criticism by the Israeli defense establishment following two incidents over the last year.
The first is Trump’s rash decision (for the second time) to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. While the president once again partially walked back his order, leaving a residual presence, Israeli security experts are concerned that the reduced U.S. contingent—coupled with Trump’s apparent desire to get out of Syria—will leave Israel alone to deal with threats emanating from Syrian territory, including Iran and Hezbollah. Amos Yadlin, the former director of military intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces, argued that the declining U.S. presence in Syria makes it “easier for Iran, it’s easier for Bashar al-Assad, it’s easier for Hezbollah.” Yaakov Amidror, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security advisor, likewise concluded that with fewer Americans on the ground, “the Iranians will probably be more aggressive.”
Trump’s choice not to respond to the September attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil refinery, for which his administration has publicly blamed Iran, has also undermined Israel’s security environment. In any other administration, such a brazen strike on a critical node in the global energy supply line, which temporarily took 5 percent of world oil production offline, would have resulted in a credible response, whether military, diplomatic, or economic. Israel is understandably worried that the failure to impose serious consequences for an assault on a country that Trump has embraced as a “great ally” has emboldened Iran, though it should also recognize that Iran’s challenge is a result of Trump’s ill-advised “maximum pressure” campaign. In a rare (though implicit) criticism of the Trump administration, Netanyahu himself contended, “Iran’s brazenness in the region is increasing and even getting stronger in light of the absence of a response.” The former director of the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s Political-Affairs Bureau Amos Gilad similarly observed that Trump’s “no-reaction policy when Iran attacks Saudi Arabian oil facilities or when Iran shoots down an American drone projects weakness,” which “is bad for Israel since American deterrence is Israeli deterrence as well.”
As a result of these decisions, Trump is developing a reputation within Israel’s security establishment as an unreliable ally. Amiram Levin, the former commander of the Israeli military’s Northern Command, has complained that “Israeli policy is based on the false assumption that Trump is the great friend,” adding that “as long as Trump is in power, Israel has no one to rely on.” Even Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States who has repeatedly criticized President Barack Obama in racist terms, has been forced to acknowledge that whereas Obama reportedly pledged to intervene “if Israel ever got into a serious war,” he does not “think that Israel can bank on that today.”
Pointing out how Trump has neglected Israel’s security is not to say that the United States should always side with the Israeli government. U.S. and Israeli perceptions of shared security interests frequently diverge, and a presidential administration should not hesitate to take steps to preserve U.S. security when Israel disapproves. Obama, in whose administration I served as the National Security Council director responsible for the Israel political-military portfolio, negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, foreclosing Tehran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon despite heavy and vocal Israeli opposition, straining relations. In retrospect, I still believe that was the right decision for both U.S. and Israeli security. And, to be fair, I do not fundamentally disagree with Trump’s instinct to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, though I strongly object to the way in which he has approached the drawdown.
Yet, there remains a fundamental difference between how Obama and Trump have engaged Israel and its security. Even when Obama disagreed with Israel, his positions were motivated in part by a concern for Israel’s welfare. On the Iran deal, for instance, he genuinely believed that Israel would be better off without a nuclear Iran. The Obama administration abstained on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 criticizing Israeli settlement activity not out of indifference to Israel but out of authentic concern that the settlement enterprise would ultimately endanger its security. Having spent months of my life helping to negotiate the 2016 U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding on security assistance, the largest military aid package in U.S. history, on the orders of Obama and his National Security Advisor Susan Rice, I can personally attest to his administration’s deep and abiding commitment to Israel’s security.
By contrast, when Trump has acted in ways that Israel perceives as contrary to its interests, he has done so with characteristic disregard for those who would be affected. Rather than try to mitigate the negative security externalities of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, he breezily remarked that the Iranians “can do what they want [in Syria].” Asked by Netanyahu to partially lift a freeze on U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, assistance which Israeli security officials have called “critical to Israeli security,” Trump did not dispute the importance of the aid, but instead said, “if it is that important to Netanyanu, he should pay.” Trump is so oblivious to Israel’s security that he even reportedly pledged to sell Egypt’s President Abdelfattah al-Sisi F-35s in contravention of both a Pentagon prohibition to provide the aircraft to other Middle Eastern countries and U.S. law committing the United States to uphold Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Intentions matter in foreign affairs, and Israeli security officials are fast discovering that Trump has been perfectly happy to promote the Israeli settler agenda, but when Israeli interests conflict with the instincts of his isolationist political base, he is consistently unreliable. Ultimately, the president is not really pro-Israel—he’s pro-Trump. The difference between the two will eventually assert itself one way or the other, but Americans who truly care about Israel should hope it becomes apparent before the 2020 presidential election.