It is increasingly difficult to separate the political from the policy in the international affairs of the United States.
Israel is one example, where the moves taken by the Trump administration seem calibrated to please a certain portion of the Republican base and build a wedge issue for the next election. These moves also seem designed to support the political fortunes of a Trump ally, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a time when he is facing accusations of corruption and self-dealing similar to those leveled at Trump.
In light of the announcement that Netanyahu will not form a parliament and will instead trigger another election this fall, these moves seem more questionable. Tying our fortunes to the fortunes of a single political figure and that person’s relationship to our president carries dangers that are becoming clearer in this troubled region of the world.
To a certain extent, there is a simplicity to the Trump approach that cuts through the typical diplomatic hedging. In this sense, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which was announced last year, is simply an open acknowledgement of the underlying truth of our relationship with the Middle East: We are on Israel’s side in all things. Despite Trump’s and Netanyahu’s protestations to the contrary, this was true through the Obama administration and every administration stretching back decades.
Yet, under the Obama and Bush and Clinton administrations, there were attempts to parlay that steadfast support for Israel into a peaceful resolution, or at least some form of progress, in the intractable issue of the future of a Palestinian / Israeli state. This latest U.S. administration has shed any pretense of trying to be an honest, neutral broker and has overtly chosen sides. For Palestinians and their allies, this simply proved their assumption, that the U.S. had always been in the pocket of Israel.
Domestically, this change has collided with the election of freshman representatives in the U.S. House who identify much more closely with the Palestinian perspective, and have been unafraid to share this view. This has led to accusations of anti-Semitism and calls for censure by Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet, these representatives have a point, in that this sharp swerve in policy has apparently brought us no closer to a peaceful resolution. Perhaps no action on the part of our country could.
The United States has always attempted to have it both ways. In addition to Israel, in the Middle East alone we support Saudi Arabia and Egypt with billions of dollars in military funding and other support. We have accepted that these governments are repressive, undemocratic, and in many cases supporters of the kind of Islamic extremism that we have spent many billions of dollars and thousands of lives fighting to defeat.
With all this said, the Trump Administration approach is no more coherent than any past president’s. The ostensible increase in support for Israel comes even as the president has announced a troop withdrawal from Syria and other places (which was later backed down). There is increased posturing in opposition to Iran, another oppressive theocratic regime that we should oppose — but not a whole lot different from Saudi Arabia in that regard.
There are reasons to go all in on our support for Israel. It is the lone democracy in the Middle East with any history of free and fair elections. Yet, under Netanyahu, it has increasingly turned toward enshrining a religion as central to its legitimacy, which has further distanced any reckoning with the existence of millions of Palestinians in Israel and as refugees elsewhere. If we were confident that this was a means to an end, it might make sense. But it seems to be an all-too-familiar play for political advantage.