Friday 2 June 2017

Trump - Saviour or Poison Chalice

The visit to Israel by US President Donald Trump has come and gone, and the analysts will undoubtedly still spend some time considering their verdicts dissecting each aspect of the visit.  At first glance, the visit appears to have been filled with symbolism but short on substance.  Following a turbulent first few months in office for the US president, there are many who wonder whether his support for Israel is welcome, or whether it is turning out to be more of a poison chalice than a helping hand.

Trump has been openly and publicly supportive of Israel's position, even from before he was elected.  His high profile campaign promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been the subject of much debate and controversy.  When his victory in the presidential election was revealed, the Israeli government (and many other Israelis) welcomed his election with the hope and expectation that this would change the anti-Israel bias within the US government and elsewhere that was such a feature of the Obama administration.  And changes have certainly been felt since his election.

The current atmosphere at the United Nations is entirely different from the one that ruled during 2016 and before.  Part of this change can be attributed to new UN Secretary General António Guterres, who is much less inclined to entertain the constant barrage of anti-Israel sentiment that prevailed under Ban Ki Moon.  Much of the change is, however, thanks to new US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and the change in policy that she represents.  She has imposed the Trump administration's support for Israel at the UN in the strongest possible terms.  The days of raising frivolous anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council are over for now.  The international community has understood that these will be vetoed by the US, and that there is little point in raising them under the current administration.  Haley has been vociferous in her condemnation of the constant attempts to paint Israel in a negative light.  There can be little doubt that the changes at the UN have a great deal to do with the new man in the White House.

President Trump's visit to Israel was highly symbolic.  He made Israel one of the stops on his maiden foreign tour since becoming president.  He visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his visit, becoming the first US president to make this visit while in office.  He emphasized to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that funding terror is not acceptable.  He reinforced the support that Israel will always enjoy from his administration.  In spite of this, he stayed clear of the key substantive issues confronting Israel and the region now.  He did not raise the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem.  No mention was made of the constant accusations against Israel regarding construction in Judea and Samaria.  Nothing was said about Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, or accusations regarding Israel's claims to Jerusalem as its capital.  His outward shows of support were all seized upon, recognised and appreciated by the majority of Israelis.  The lack of meaningful progress in getting Israelis and Palestinians to sit down around the peace table is what the international community has seized upon.

The issue that Israel needs to consider is Trump's overall standing within the USA and further afield.  It was clear before he arrived in Israel that Trump has many enemies at home, and that they are determined to keep him on the back foot by levelling all types of accusations against him.  Trump's own conduct in defending these accusations has certainly not helped his cause.  And Israel was dragged into the crossfire when Trump was accused of sharing secret intelligence received from Israel with Russia.  If true, this would be a serious violation of trust, and norms associated  with the sharing of intelligence information.

Distrust for Trump appears to be spreading rapidly within the international community as well.  Trump's recent appearances at the G7 and NATO meetings did not show him to be in accord with any of the other western leaders.  On the contrary, there are indications that Trump is being sidelined from the key international organisations.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”  This is an art that Trump has clearly not yet mastered.  Even though Trump frequently says things that many people are thinking, he has not yet discovered how to say it in a way that does not create enemies.  While Israel has no particular issue with Trump's popularity (or lack of it) in the international community, there is a danger that Israel will be tarred with the same negative brush if she is seen to be too closely associated with Trump.

There is no doubt that Israel has already gained a great deal from the change of administration in the White House.  Trump's influence over US domestic and international policy towards Israel, and his influence over proceedings at the UN cannot be under-estimated.  Israel will certainly wish to see more of that in the future.  There is a danger, however, that the association with Trump could prove to be negative in Israel's relationships with other countries around the world.  If Trump continues to completely ignore the accepted rules of international engagement while representing his contrary views, he will quickly became a pariah in the international community.  And, even if Israel wishes to stay close to Trump to benefit from his supportive views and actions, the association with him may proved negative. 

The prime minister and the Israeli government has a tough job to navigate a careful path to take advantage of the emerging situation, without losing too much in the process.  Will Trump prove to be the good things for Israel that were predicted, or a poison chalice?  Only time will tell.