Is­raelis may miss Obama more than they ex­pected

Former U.S. am­bas­sador Daniel Shapiro says Trump’s un­pre­dictabil­ity has un­set­tled even the right wing

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @DanielBShapiro Daniel Shapiro is a dis­tin­guished vis­it­ing fel­low at the In­sti­tute for Na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies at Tel Aviv Univer­sity. He served as U.S. am­bas­sador to Is­rael from 2011 un­til the end of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Wtel aviv hat makes the United States a good ally to Is­rael? What makes a pres­i­dent of the United States a good part­ner? I pon­dered these ques­tions fre­quently dur­ing nearly six years as Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s am­bas­sador to Is­rael, and they have re­newed rel­e­vance as Pres­i­dent Trump pre­pares to un­der­take his first visit here. The an­swers — which have less to do with pol­icy, and more to do with per­sonal qual­i­ties and man­age­ment — may be less ob­vi­ous than they ap­pear.

Obama, of course, had well-doc­u­mented chal­lenges both in his re­la­tion­ship with his coun­ter­part, Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, and his per­cep­tion among the Israeli pub­lic. Real pol­icy dif­fer­ences over Israeli set­tle­ment ex­pan­sion in the West Bank and the terms of the nu­clear deal with Iran caused in­nu­mer­able dis­agree­ments, many of them quite pub­lic. But dur­ing my time rep­re­sent­ing the United States here, I found that the car­i­ca­ture of uni­ver­sal Israeli hos­til­ity to Obama was over­stated. On his own visit to Is­rael in 2013, he made a very pos­i­tive im­pres­sion on the Israeli pub­lic as a friend who was deeply com­mit­ted to their well-be­ing and se­cu­rity.

But it was never hard to find Is­raelis who be­lieved (mis­tak­enly) that Obama was gen­uinely un­friendly to Is­rael; many con­sid­ered him aloof, dis­tant and naive about the Mid­dle East. A fi­nal dis­pute over the United States’ decision not to veto a U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion crit­i­ciz­ing Israeli set­tle­ments at the end of last year, ac­cord­ing to a Jan­uary 2017 poll con­ducted by the Is­rael Democ­racy In­sti­tute, drove the num­ber of Is­raelis call­ing Obama “un­friendly” to Is­rael up to 57 per­cent.

So af­ter eight years of of­ten tense re­la­tions, some right-wing Is­raelis her­alded Trump’s sur­prise elec­tion in Novem­ber in nearly mes­sianic terms: the ar­rival of a pres­i­dent who “at last” would sup­port Is­rael un­con­di­tion­ally and not pres­sure the coun­try to limit set­tle­ment growth or make con­ces­sions to the Pales­tini­ans. Naf­tali Ben­nett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, de­clared, “Trump’s vic­tory is an op­por­tu­nity for Is­rael to im­me­di­ately re­tract the no­tion of a Pales­tinian state.”

But only a few months into Trump’s term, and af­ter the events of re­cent days, Is­raelis al­ready seem to be won­der­ing how well this change will work out for them.

The early per­cep­tions that Trump would re­verse all of Obama’s pol­icy de­ci­sions and never chal­lenge Is­rael very quickly proved in­ac­cu­rate. So far, his ad­min­is­tra­tion has em­barked on a much more tra­di­tional ap­proach of seek­ing to re­strain Israeli set­tle­ments, cur­tail Pales­tinian vi­o­lence and in­cite­ment, and re­vive Israeli-Pales­tinian ne­go­ti­a­tions to­ward a two-state so­lu­tion, with the sup­port of key Arab states. In­deed, some of the same Is­raelis who praised Trump now crit­i­cize him for his friendly meet­ing with Pales­tinian Author­ity Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ab­bas or his fail­ure to quickly move the U.S. Em­bassy to Jerusalem. Is­rael’s deputy for­eign min­is­ter, Tzipi Ho­tovely, warned Trump last week­end not to di­vide Jerusalem, while urg­ing that the em­bassy be moved. On Iran, Trump has passed up op­por­tu­ni­ties to scrap the nu­clear deal, opt­ing to main­tain its es­sen­tial frame­work.

Is­raelis do ap­pre­ci­ate Trump’s tougher rhetor­i­cal ap­proach to Iran, his ex­pressed an­tag­o­nism to­ward Is­lamic ex­trem­ists and his cozy re­la­tion­ship with mod­er­ate Sunni Arab states, such as Trump’s first stop on this trip, Saudi Ara­bia. There has been much en­thu­si­asm in Is­rael about Trump’s cam­paign state­ments, his ad­vis­ers, even his Jewish fam­ily mem­bers. The Is­rael Democ­racy In­sti­tute poll in Jan­uary found that 69 per­cent of Is­raelis ex­pected Trump to be “friendly” to­ward Is­rael. Even as con­cerns have crept into the think­ing of rightlean­ing Is­raelis, Ne­tanyahu has re­peat­edly praised Trump as “a true friend.”

With Obama, Is­raelis may not al­ways have got­ten ev­ery­thing they wanted. But they al­ways got con­sis­tency. Obama held as a firm prin­ci­ple the idea that the U.S. com­mit­ment to Is­rael’s se­cu­rity was un­con­di­tional. We and the Is­raelis could ar­gue (and did) about is­sues we dis­agreed on — Obama al­ways told those of us on his team that he deemed the re­la­tion­ship ma­ture enough and durable enough to with­stand such dif­fer­ences — but they needed to know that the United States was a re­li­able ally when it mat­tered most. And he de­liv­ered. Our joint re­search and de­vel­op­ment and U.S. funding pro­duced dra­matic breakthroughs in Israeli mis­sile de­fense, in­clud­ing the life­sav­ing Iron Dome sys­tem. We signed the largest-ever mil­i­tary as­sis­tance pack­age, worth $38 bil­lion, en­abling Is­rael to out­fit its air force with ad­vanced F-35 air­craft and se­cur­ing its re­gional mil­i­tary ad­van­tage. The United States gave Is­rael full back­ing to de­fend it­self, whether against rocket and tun­nel at­tacks by Ha­mas in Gaza or at­tempts to smug­gle dan­ger­ous weapons to Hezbol­lah in Le­banon.

But even more than these dra­matic ex­am­ples, what Israeli se­cu­rity of­fi­cials told me they came to ap­pre­ci­ate was Obama’s style of lead­er­ship: steady, thought­ful, knowl­edge­able. They knew that when a sen­si­tive mat­ter was raised with him that re­quired U.S. sup­port — from ex­pand­ing joint mis­sile de­fense ca­pa­bil­i­ties, to pool­ing our in­tel­li­gence re­sources, to sup­port­ing Is­rael’s abil­ity and le­git­i­macy to con­duct mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Syria to in­ter­dict weapons ship­ments to Hezbol­lah — he had the ma­tu­rity, the dis­ci­pline and the judg­ment to reach well-in­formed de­ci­sions that ben­e­fit­ted Is­rael’s se­cu­rity. The re­sult was a pe­riod of un­prece­dented in­ti­macy be­tween our mil­i­taries and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. That doesn’t mean we al­ways agreed, or that leaks and other com­mu­ni­ca­tions sna­fus never oc­curred. Both sides were frus­trated, for ex­am­ple, by unau­tho­rized leaks re­gard­ing Israeli mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Syria, and U.S. diplo­matic strat­egy on Iran. But I was struck by the depth of ap­pre­ci­a­tion that se­nior Israeli mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials ex­pressed for Obama’s con­tri­bu­tions to Is­rael’s se­cu­rity, of­ten draw­ing a con­trast with sen­ti­ments ex­pressed by their politi­cians or the pub­lic. Amos Gi­lad, a long­time se­nior de­fense of­fi­cial who re­cently re­tired from gov­ern­ment ser­vice, told me: “It’s easy to crit­i­cize Obama. But on the mil­i­tary front, the re­la­tion­ship was in­cred­i­ble.”

Con­trast that with the emerg­ing por­trait of Trump. His un­pre­dictabil­ity, which plays out daily on his Twit­ter feed, was al­ready a source of anx­i­ety even be­fore the re­cent rev­e­la­tions. Is­raelis now have to ask which Trump will show up for work each day — the friend who pledges his loy­alty or the ado­les­cent who can lash out at al­lies such as Aus­tralia and Canada, and per­haps one day Is­rael? His lack of knowl­edge, com­pounded by his aver­sion to read­ing and short at­ten­tion span, means he will not be pre­pared when is­sues crit­i­cal to Is­rael’s se­cu­rity are brought to him for decision. His care­less­ness with sen­si­tive Israeli in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing, re­port­edly, his shock­ing im­pulse to share it with Rus­sian of­fi­cials with­out Is­rael’s per­mis­sion, has shaken the con­fi­dence of the Israeli in­tel­li­gence ser­vices in the re­li­a­bil­ity of the United States as a part­ner. And his rep­u­ta­tion as a pres­i­dent in­dif­fer­ent to demo­cratic val­ues and in­sti­tu­tions and en­am­ored of au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers is harm­ing the United States’ stand­ing glob­ally, which is never good for Is­rael. Is­raelis say that when the United States catches a cold, they get a fever.

Israeli of­fi­cials, tak­ing no chances on sour­ing the re­la­tion­ship, are be­ing cau­tious not to be quoted ex­press­ing their con­cerns, es­pe­cially in the run-up to Trump’s visit. And re­la­tions be­tween the mil­i­taries and in­tel­li­gence ser­vices re­main close and pro­fes­sional. But off the record, of­fi­cials are be­gin­ning to ac­knowl­edge that some­thing has changed. The Israeli daily Ye­dioth Ahronoth this past week quoted an Israeli in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial as say­ing: “If Trump, even if out of naivete or a lack of knowl­edge, did leak in­for­ma­tion to the Rus­sians, there is now a sig­nif­i­cant risk to sources we have de­voted years to ac­quir­ing and to [our] work meth­ods. . . . We need to reeval­u­ate whether and which in­for­ma­tion we share with the Amer­i­cans.” That’s a sig­nif­i­cant blow to the con­fi­dence our al­liance de­pends on.

This com­ing week, Is­raelis will have the chance to ob­serve Trump up close when he vis­its. Will they like what they see, and ap­pre­ci­ate the un­doubt­edly friendly sen­ti­ments he will ex­press and his em­pha­sis on ar­eas of pol­icy agree­ment? Or will he re­in­force their wor­ries that the United States, their best ally, is now in the hands of an er­ratic, un­re­li­able leader?

Is­rael’s late pres­i­dent, Shi­mon Peres, liked to quote the ad­vice his men­tor, David Ben-Gu­rion, gave Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy when they met fol­low­ing JFK’s elec­tion: The best way you can help Is­rael, Ben-Gu­rion told him, is “by be­ing a great Pres­i­dent of the United States.”

I hear the anx­i­ety of Is­raelis, who won­der what will be­come of their al­liance with the United States when we have a pres­i­dent who strays so far from Ben-Gu­rion’s stan­dard.


Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu calls Pres­i­dent Trump “a true friend,” though other of­fi­cials in Is­rael are start­ing to have doubts.

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