(January 3, 2017 / JNS) The onset of 2017 comes several weeks before President-elect Donald Trump takes office, ushering in a new era in the U.S.-Israel relationship. The new year and new administration bring intrigue and unanswered questions on a number of major storylines that could shape the complexion of American-Israeli ties both this year and for years to come. JNS.org presents five potential major developments to watch for this year.
Will the U.S. Embassy in Israel move to Jerusalem?
Trump and his ambassador-designate to Israel, David Friedman, have pledged to move America’s Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Will they follow through?
Typically, any country’s foreign embassies are located in capital cities. Israel set up its capital in Jerusalem in 1948, but many nations, including the U.S., have established their embassies in Tel Aviv as part of a refusal to recognize Israel’s annexation of eastern sections of Jerusalem and the unification of the city following the Jewish state’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israel has been pressing nations for decades to move their embassies to Jerusalem. In 1995, Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, calling for the U.S. embassy to be officially moved by 1999. But the measure included a provision in which the president could postpone the move every six months by executive order “to protect the national security interests of the United States.” Since the act’s passage, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have each continuously exercised this provision.
If Trump wishes to move the embassy, all he would need to do is not sign the upcoming waiver, according to U.S. law. Yet Palestinian leaders have sharply panned the potential move. As such, Trump and Friedman’s resolve to move the embassy in the face of Palestinian threats may represent a litmus test for an incoming administration that has been openly challenging the current nature of U.S. diplomacy toward Israel.
How will Trump handle the Iran nuclear deal?
Trump’s election victory last November immediately raised questions about the future of the much-discussed Iran nuclear deal, which was approved by the Obama administration and five other Western governments in July 2015.
As a presidential candidate, Trump made a variety of comments regarding his opposition to the deal, ranging from calls for stronger nuclear inspections to entirely nixing the Obama administration’s signing of the pact. Trump “has cultivated a fair amount of ambiguity” on how he would approach the nuclear deal, ambiguity that is “best exemplified by Trump’s claims of both renegotiating and tearing up” the agreement, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
Shortly after Trump’s victory, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made it clear that Trump would not be able to unilaterally destroy the deal, telling his cabinet, “Iran’s understanding in the nuclear deal was that the accord was not concluded with one country or government but was approved by a resolution of the U.N. Security Council, and there is no possibility that it can be changed by a single government.”
One of Trump’s Mideast advisers, Walid Phares, told BBC Radio that rather than “ripping up” the deal, the president-elect “will take the agreement, review it, send it to Congress, demand from the Iranians to restore a few issues or change a few issues, and there will be a discussion.”
Where will Rex Tillerson stand on Israel as secretary of state?
While the proposed embassy move to Jerusalem and opposition of the Iran deal represent positions that are strongly aligned with the Israeli government’s stances, Trump’s pick for secretary of state—ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson—left more to the imagination.
As CEO of one of the world’s largest oil firms, Tillerson spent many years cultivating relationships with top oil-producing Sunni Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Qatar. Yet on Israel, which until recent years had not been a major player in the global energy market, Tillerson’s stances are relatively unknown.
Jewish organizations had mixed reactions to the Tillerson appointment. The American Jewish Committee noted that it is “unfamiliar with his larger geopolitical view of the world and America’s place in it.” But Zionist Organization of America President Morton A. Klein gave the incoming administration the benefit of the doubt, saying, “Since Donald Trump and most of his top aides are strongly pro-Israel, I don’t believe they would have allowed this appointment if [Tillerson] were hostile [to Israel].”
Will the U.S. recognize Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights?
Member of Knesset Michael Oren (Kulanu), a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who currently serves as deputy minister for diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office, told Bloomberg News last month that he is urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek U.S. recognition of Israel’s control of the Golan Heights region after Trump takes office this month.
“If it weren’t for Israel’s presence, the Syria war would be spilling over to Jordan. So Israel’s presence in the Golan is indispensable for Mideast stability,” said Oren.
Israel gained control of the strategically important Golan from Syria as a result of the 1967 war, when Syria invaded northern Israel. In 1981, Israel extended sovereignty over the region, a status the international community has not recognized.
While the Obama administration consistently opposed Israeli control over territories the Jewish state acquired during the Six-Day War, the future Trump administration would seemingly be much more likely to back Israel on the Golan issue. Yet Dr. Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, said that timing and priorities might be obstacles to pushing through a new U.S. policy.
“The issue of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem seems like it will be a higher priority for the Trump administration, at least in its first months, than the Golan,” said Bard.
Obama’s Israel policy has been a hot-button issue in the Jewish community during the past eight years, which saw higher-than-usual tension between the Israeli and American governing administrations. Will the post-Obama era reveal any new insight into how the president feels about Israel, deep down in his heart?
The disagreements between Obama and Israel ranged from the president’s May 2011 comments that Israel’s pre-1967 borders should be the starting point for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, to disputes over Israeli settlement construction, to Obama’s support for the Iran nuclear agreement, to Netanyahu’s March 2015 address to Congress without prior consultation of the White House, to arguably the climax of the tension last month—the Obama administration’s refusal to veto a U.N. Security Council measure against Israeli settlements, breaking with the longstanding U.S. policy of defending Israel against one-sided U.N. measures.
At the same time, those seeking to downplay concerns about a bilateral crisis have noted that American defense support for Israel reached all-time high levels during the Obama years, most recently with the signing of a new 10-year, $38 billion package for U.S. aid to the Jewish state.
Come Jan. 20, Obama will no longer be constrained by the rhetorical limits of his office. Will he go the way of President Jimmy Carter—whose criticism of Israel grew sharper after his presidency—or will his post-presidential tone simply echo his outgoing administration’s current policies and statements on Israel?
—With reporting by Alex Traiman, Sean Savage and Rafael Medoff