Speaking at the AIPAC policy conference in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump proclaimed: “When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one. And when I say something, I mean it, I mean it.”
Obviously, this was an applause line, meant to fire up the audience, many of whose members felt that the past eight years under the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama had put a strain on the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Upon hearing that line, the majority most likely assumed that if Trump was elected, the U.S.-Israel relationship would return to something akin to what it had been during the administrations of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. In both cases, it was a warm relationship, and Obama’s administration was a departure from that. However, Trump’s phrase “second-class citizen” didn’t appear to have a specific meaning.
Though many supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship hoped that Trump would live up to his campaign promises, there was still skepticism. Would he be fundamentally different from previous presidents on issues such as Jerusalem and the settlements, and would he actually take the major step of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal? Yes, these issues were important to his evangelical base, and his campaign team contained pro-Israel figures. But how he would operate as president remained unknown.
As we have witnessed over the past four years, the Trump administration’s approach to Israel has been qualitatively different from that of all its predecessors. Trump adviser Jared Kushner summed up this difference in October, saying that previous administrations viewed being to openly pro-Israel as inhibiting peace, whereas in reality the opposite happened.
He also dismissed the “false notion of America being an honest broker.”
“America is not impartial,” he said. “America’s job is to look after the interests of America. And one of the things that is a fundamental underpinning of our Middle East policy toward stability is the relationship with Israel, which we want to strengthen.”
And strengthen it they did.
Some of the most notable and public steps that the Trump administration took were its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights; declaring that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria are not illegal per se; taking swift and decisive action at the United Nations to quash anti-Israel resolutions from seeing the light of day; putting international institutions discriminating against Israel on notice that such behavior would no longer be tolerated; cutting off the numerous channels that the Palestinian Authority used to delegitimize Israel; and declaring the BDS movement to be anti-Semitic.
There were other, more symbolic, moves, as well, such as Trump’s having visited Israel on his first foreign trip; being the first U.S. president to visit the Western wall; Mike Pompeo’s having been the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Judea and Samaria; and Pompeo’s encouraging Israel to defeat its enemies decisively—rather than merely accepting its need to defend itself, which was the attitude of previous administrations.
And though the Trump administration supported Israel in a way that no other U.S. administration had done, its actions shouldn’t be extraordinary where the treatment of a close ally is concerned. Recognizing an ally’s stated capital; recognizing sovereignty over land captured in a defense war and vital to an ally’s security; combating diplomatically those who would try to destroy an ally—all are normal steps that a country would and should take.
In retrospect, however, Israel was subjected to and accepted many norms that contradicted the above, which made Trump’s actions—those he had promised at the AIPAC conference prior to his election—remarkable.
As Pompeo said to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint press conference in November—held to announce that the U.S. State Department would regard the BDS movement as anti-Semitic and would begin cracking down on groups affiliated with it—“I know this may sound simple to you, Mr. Prime Minister; it seems like a statement of fact.”
In other words, it ought to have been clear that Israel’s closest ally wouldn’t tolerate such a movement. But Netanyahu, used to having his country given the “second-class citizen” treatment, replied: “It doesn’t sound simple. It sounds simply wonderful.”
The same view of the U.S.-Israel alliance led Trump to publicly question why Israel would allow Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to visit the country when their only purpose was to slander and create a PR disaster for it.
Ditto with regard to Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria despite Israeli concerns, which he dismissed by reminding Israel that the United States gives it $4.5 billion for its defense.
With the dawn of the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, policy changes concerning Israel and the Middle East can be expected.
But one of the major gifts that the Trump administration has bequeathed to Israel—along with all of the aforementioned actions, both concrete and symbolic—is the knowledge that it should no longer see itself, nor accept a reality in which it is seen, as a “second-class citizen” among the nations.
Gideon Israel is the author of the book Broken Values: How The Democratic Party Platform Betrays Its Followers And America.