By Yossi Mekelberg*
Watching the inauguration of Donald Trump on a very cold Friday afternoon in Washington felt like the theater of the absurd. It was the moment that it sunk in that the new reality is President Trump and probably also Orwellian “newspeak.” The man who only a few months ago was an invaluable asset for a late-night satire show has become one of the most influential politicians in the world.
There is no escaping the fact that we are entering unchartered territory in terms of US leadership, and it is going to have an immense impact on the country’s Middle East foreign policy, particularly regarding Israel. Prior to entering the presidential race he was a middle-of-the-road supporter of Israel, not a fervent one.
For Israel and its supporters in the US, his bid to enter the White House got off to a slow start for their liking. Early on in the primaries, he told a rather surprised audience in South Carolina that when it came to peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, he planned to be “sort of a neutral guy.” He even dared to say soon after that for negotiations to be successful, “a lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel is willing to sacrifice certain things.”
It did not take long for him to understand that this was not language that wins votes in the US. With the active advice of his son-in-law, now the new administration’s peace broker Jared Kushner, and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the US, he shifted almost 180 degrees. Trump started attacking his predecessor Barack Obama for mistreating Israel, and promised that under his presidency Israel would not be treated as a “second-class citizen.”
This was a strange accusation given that the Obama administration had just signed the biggest military aid deal with Israel in the history of the two countries. Furthermore, Obama was far from heavy-handed with Israel throughout the failed peace process, despite wide consensus that it failed mainly due to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government’s intransigence. This was even after Netanyahu boldly intervened in US domestic affairs during nuclear negotiations with Iran.
All the signs thus far point to Trump doing anything to appease the extreme right-wing Israeli government and its constituency in the US. Suggesting moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem prior to a peace deal with the Palestinians, and appointing a new ambassador to Israel who is an ardent supporter of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, leaves little hope that the promise to broker the “deal of all deals” to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not more than a hollow one.
No surprise that leading Israeli Cabinet ministers openly expressed their delight with the election of Trump, hoping that this would be the end of the idea of an independent Palestinian state. However, if Trump would like to be a good friend to Israel and also serve his country’s best interest, he should read and follow to the letter former Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech last month just before he left office.
*Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.