Amir Cohen / Reuters U.S. President Donald Trump (middle) sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and President Reuven Rivlin, May 2017.

Is Trump Ruining the U.S.-Israeli Relationship?

Why Israel Is Getting Nervous

Nothing is more irksome to Israel’s right-wing establishment than the familiar charge that "the situation”—that is, with the Palestinians—“is unsustainable.” Leveled by critics of supposed Israeli foot-dragging, unsustainability has typically meant that anything less than the all-out aggressive pursuit of peace will ultimately jeopardize the survival of the Jewish state. The merits of such a conclusion are arguable. Either way, sustainability has now resurfaced in the political discourse, pertaining this time to no less a core component of Israel’s national security than its famed partnership with the United States. Can it endure?

Tensions plagued the U.S.-Israeli relationship under the joint stewardship of U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At times, it seemed doubtful that the bilateral friendship would withstand their overlapping tenures. Clashes over Iranian nuclear designs, the Middle East peace process, and the best response to Syria’s civil war generated bitter debate—often tinged with personal insults—that drove a wedge between the two countries. As Obama’s tenure approached its end, Netanyahu and then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump signaled to concerned parties that the post-Obama era would witness an instant dissipation of any animosity. Israel and the United States would live happily ever after.

But more than eight months into the Trump presidency, the embers are still smoldering. Netanyahu and his acolytes fed the narrative that Obama’s professed sympathy for Israel was disingenuous, that no friend of Israel in the White House would ever endorse the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran or decline to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli policy—both of which Obama did. (Never mind the $38 billion package of security assistance that the Obama administration bestowed upon Israel.) The solid foundations of the mutually beneficial alliance buckled, but proved resilient. Now, Trump is pushing the relationship back toward the breaking point.

ALL STUMP TRUMP

Many Israelis—hailing from one of only two countries in the world to express greater faith in Trump’s management of world affairs than Obama’s (the other being Russia)—had high expectations for a renaissance in relations with the United States. Taking Trump at his word that he was Israel’s “biggest friend,” they recorded his promises to immediately relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and watched him mobilize, as president-elect, to block an Egyptian challenge to Israel at the United Nations. Trump’s Jewish supporters in the United States were similarly motivated by the belief that the real estate tycoon (and grandfather to three young Jewish children) would be “good for Israel.” But there seems to be an inverse relationship between Trump’s rhetoric and tangible progress, at least with regard to Israel. His much-touted May visit to Israel was long on symbolism, but remarkably short on substance.  

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