U.S. President Donald Trump surprised quite a few people last week when he said that with Arab oil no longer a significant factor, the United States has no reason to remain in the Middle East, but U.S. forces would stay in the region out of a commitment to Israel. This statement comes a week after he said he would support Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite the prince’s involvement in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in order to “ensure Israel’s interests” in the region.
Indeed, Israel has a true friend in the White House who is deeply committed to its security.
But although this was certainly not the president’s intention, these statements should be a warning sign for Jerusalem.
Ever since the United States. became Israel’s closest ally in the mid-1960s, Israel has made every effort to make it clear to the world that it would not ask American soldiers to fight its battles. This principle was also acceptable to U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, which were willing to provide Israel with financial aid and with the best of U.S. weapons and technology so that the Jewish state would maintain its qualitative edge over its enemies.
President Harry Truman was the first to recognize Israel when the state was established in 1948, despite serious opposition from the State Department and the Defense Department. Then-Defense Secretary James Forrestal feared that America would be forced to send in troops to save the Jews, just as it did in World War II. He also claimed that Israel’s establishment would destroy U.S.-Arab ties.
Over time, Israel proved it had the ability to defend itself, and beyond that, was a regional ally and genuine strategic asset for the United States. And as history has shown, U.S.-Israel ties did not harm the U.S. relationship with the Arab states.
But the winds of political division are now blowing through Washington. Democratic legislators attack longtime U.S. ally Saudi Arabia in an attempt to lay into Trump. Meanwhile, conservatives on the Republican side continue to insist that the United States adopt a policy more focused on internal affairs.
Against the background of these attacks, the president chose to employ his “doomsday device” and explain that his foreign policy was aimed at protecting Israel.
However, this statement could make Israel a target for criticism, as from now on, it will be blamed for U.S. tax dollars being wasted overseas, and worse, will be held responsible for every American soldier killed across the Middle East.
Trump’s statement is also problematic because it is not precise. America does not maintain a military presence in the Middle East because of Israel, but to protect its national security. It was when the U.S. ignored the fact that Al Qaeda was establishing itself in Afghanistan that it found itself under attack by the organization in September 2001. A retreat to U.S. borders, then, does not guarantee immunity from the threat of terrorism and radical Islam. And if the United States considers itself to be a leading world power, it must necessarily intervene in overseas affairs.
It would be appropriate for Trump to emphasize that, unlike other U.S. allies such as Europe, Japan and South Korea, Israel does not require the protection of American soldiers. It is capable of defending itself and even assisting in the promotion of U.S. interests in the region and throughout the world.
That has always been Israel’s unique advantage, and it should be noted in the heated internal debate now underway in Washington over U.S. foreign policy and America’s role in the world.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.