What a difference a month makes.
By now I am not sure if anyone even remembers UN Security Council Resolution 2334 passed on the 23rd of December when the US chose not to exercise its veto.
President Obama is gone. Although he strongly supported Israel in the security and intelligence areas, his stated intention to allow daylight between the US and Israel in the diplomatic sphere and his single minded and unbalanced focus on “settlements” ultimately undermined Israel’s security to a degree.
Whatever will be the view of Obama’s domestic policies, it is highly probable that in the foreign policy arena he will largely be regarded as possibly well meaning but naïve and the ultimate cause of terrible international problems and major loss of life, by creating vacuums which have variously been filled by Russia, Iran and China in different parts of the globe.
What remains to be seen is whether Obama’s policy of the refusal to exercise US power will differ from President Trump’s “America First” policy which at first glance looks isolationist but comes in tandem with a stated policy to destroy radical Islamic terrorism.
Before dealing with that, we could reflect on how things have changed since 2334.
What may appear to have been an initial over reaction by Prime Minister Netanyahu, turned out to be a clarion call to Israel’s supporters around the world.
First to step up, and how lucky and proud Australia and Australian Jews can be, were Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with multiple statements of support for Israel over a variety of subjects ranging from 2334 to the ridiculous so called Paris Middle East peace summit organised by what is one of the most unpopular French Presidents of all time and attended by neither Israel or the Palestinians.
However even Julie Bishop cautioned against “unilateral steps” when Israel announced a very modest building approval of apartments almost exclusively in Jerusalem and/or the established blocks.
Then followed the British who finally found their voice, and once doing so, were very strong, leading to the Israeli press to refer to a new dynamic of “Anglo support” by way of the USA, Britain and Australia.
In early January a terrorist truck driver murdered Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem. Usually, to our consternation and dismay, only Israel refers to such events as terrorism.
However, the new UN Secretary General and former Prime Minister of Portugal, Antonio Guterres, who took over the UN post at the beginning of January, made a remarkable statement.
Without hesitation he condemned:
“the terrorist attack by a Palestinian assailant”
and then went further stating
“All those responsible for such acts must be brought to justice, condemned and disavowed.”
This represents a dramatic change of tone by a UN leader. Both in the declaration of this as a terrorist event and on the matter of incitement.
And what about such demonstrations of support in response to the truck murders, also unprecedented, as the blanketing of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin with a giant Israeli flag? Think on the symbolism of that!
So now with President Trump, will the seemingly better diplomatic environment that developed since 2334 continue?
In the first instance we should say a resounding yes, at least as far as relations with the USA is concerned.
Trump’s has reiterated assurances that there would be no daylight between Israel and the USA under his Presidency.
Clearly and repeatedly we have heard that he will move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Previous presidents such as Clinton and George W Bush had also promised to do so, but it seems as if Trump sounds likely to be more serious about this.
Although on Thursday in a major interview on Fox’s Hannity, Trump himself said on that topic:
“I don’t want to talk about it yet. It’s too early”
If he does move the embassy, that would be a very big positive long overdue step and could lead to other countries doing so as well. If he does not after all that hype, you can forget any other country doing so for the foreseeable future.
The real question is what the other polices related to Israel will be and who of Trump’s advisers and close circle will influence him the most when it comes to Israel.
One of the biggest problems that Israel continually faced with Obama came from the wrong sided advice he was given by a few prominent US Jews. Whoever has the President’s ear and what they believe and say, is critical.
In July 2009 at a meeting with the most senior US Jewish leaders, Obama spoke on the matter of “settlements”, which aside from the issue of Iran was the most contentious between himself and Netanyahu.
The Jewish leadership were shocked to see Obama grab the arm of his then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (now mayor of Chicago) and say:
“Don’t think that we don’t understand the nuances of the settlement issues. We do. We understand there is a profound political edge to Israeli politics. But Rahm understands the politics there and he explains them to me.”
In other words, no need to discuss “settlements” with Israel, no need to get real information, no need to verify if building actually takes place and where, but to just rely on the very partisan views of one of his closest advisers, who happens to be Jewish.
By the way, there are lessons here for Jewish leadership around the world about how much daylight they allow between themselves and Israel. And what prominence is given to non representative minority voices.
Aside from Trump speaking strongly on the embassy move and in declarations on the importance of Israel as one of the USA’s closest allies – again, big positives in themselves – we have little idea of what he thinks about the broader Middle East policies.
Back to the “war on radical Islamic terrorism”. This depends on the who and the how.
Defeating ISIS by strengthening the far larger danger, Iran, is not a win.
That’s just replacing Sunni radical Islamic terror with Shiite radical Islamic terror.
Iran’s brand of Shiite Islamic terrorism is being exported all over the Middle East and beyond.
So if Trump sees the US as defeating ISIS, that’s one thing, but if he simply hands this over to Russia and its unholy alliance with Iran that means bringing Iran right to Israel’s borders by controlling Syria and via its proxy Hezbollah, also to large parts of Lebanon.
Rather interestingly, on Jerusalem and the Two State for Two People mantra, we have on the one hand Trump’s son-in-law and the newly appointed US ambassador to Israel David Friedman and on the other a consistent message from Trump’s nominees to key positions.
During the confirmation hearings Trump nominee for Secretary of Defense, James Mattis said:
“the United States should continue treating Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital”
and then emphasised that
“the capital of Israel is Tel Aviv because that’s where all the government people are.”
Mattis also said that two states was the only way forward.
It should be remembered that in 2013 Mattis warned against settlement growth and said that:
“Israel was in danger of becoming an apartheid state as a result.”
Trump nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson said:
“The two-state solution has to be a shared aspiration of all of us. It’s the State Department’s role to try and create an environment that brings parties together that want to find a way forward. I can tell you that under the conditions today, it’s extremely challenging to do that, but that has to be the aspirational goal.”
Trump’s nominee for UN Ambassador, Nikki Hayley, whilst strongly committing to protect Israel at the UN, also said that she:
“had not heard that there would be any changes from the Trump administration on settlements or two states.”
So we will have to wait and see just how interested and involved Trump himself will be on Israel and who will have his ear, before we leap to conclusions on future policy.