columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Trump discarded the carrot-and-stick approach to Israel

At the heart of Democratic critiques of the administration’s Middle East policy is a belief that the United States should tell the Jewish state how to act.

U.S. President Donald Trump. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. President Donald Trump. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

When The New York Times decided to give the Democratic presidential candidates a chance to answer 18 policy questions in a video essay, the only one that touched on the Middle East went as follows: “Do you think Israel meets international standards of human rights?” That question summed up the anti-Israel bias of the so-called newspaper of record as well as anything it has ever published.

Considering the scores of nations with egregious human-rights records and the presence in Israel’s immediate proximity to many of them, it speaks volumes about the obsessive nature of the paper’s prejudice that the only query it would ask about was the one country in the region that is a democracy and respects human rights.

A few of the candidates gave the correct answer to the question, which is “yes.” Give credit to Sens. Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and former congressman John Delaney for prefacing their remarks by saying that. But the other 18 (frontrunner Joe Biden chose not to participate) failed to do so and, instead, used it as an excuse to criticize the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while expressing sometimes equivocal sympathy for the Jewish state mixed with a belief that it wasn’t doing all it could for peace or human rights. Almost all bashed the Trump administration’s approach to Israel. Almost all seem to define the relationship in a way that hinges support for Israel on factors other than the shared values that united the two countries.

The most forthright of these critics is Pete Buttigieg, the popular mayor of South Bend, Ind. It is interesting that Buttigieg, a gay man, chose not to note that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that respects the rights of LGBT persons. But in his answer to the Times’ question and a recent foreign-policy address, as well as in other interviews, the mayor has gotten to the heart of the problems that Democrats have with Trump when it comes to Israel.

Buttigieg notes that he wouldn’t move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem (“what’s done is done”), but what he really doesn’t like about Trump’s policy is that the president conceives of the relationship as between two friends, rather than the carrot-and-stick approach used by President Barack Obama and every other U.S. president before him.

“If you’re going to give somebody something they’ve wanted … even with a strong ally like Israel … you don’t do that without getting some kind of concession,” said Buttigieg. And he flatly warned that if Israel’s government did something he didn’t like if he were to become president, such as extending Israeli law to some of the settlements in the West Bank, then he would punish the nation by withholding aid.

Like most of the rest of the Democrats, Buttigieg seems to see Israel’s legitimacy as linked to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside it. Such a state is something that many, perhaps even a majority, of Israelis would welcome provided that it came in the context of a true peace that would end the conflict. But the overwhelming majority of Israelis—as evidenced by the way they have voted in the last several elections—understand that they have no credible partner for peace. And they reject repeating the colossal disaster in which their country withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which resulted in the creation of a terrorist state.

That’s something that the Democrats, who are so quick to denounce the choices that Israeli voters have made, don’t acknowledge or understand. Instead, they think that the United States has the right to pressure Israel into making concessions to create a Palestinian state, regardless of the fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected peace offers that would have given them one long ago.

At its core, the Democrats’ conception of the U.S.-Israel relationship is that of a great power and a client state that must do as it’s told.

There is a vast imbalance in the relative power of the two countries, and Israel needs the support of its superpower ally. But the thing that Trump has done that really bothers the Democrats is that unlike his predecessor, he has no burning desire to “save Israel from itself.” Nor is he convinced—as Obama and some of the 2020 candidates are—that he understands their security dilemmas better than they do. To the contrary, though he harbors an unrealistic ambition to broker “the ultimate deal” that would bring peace, he is not prepared to be the one to dictate the terms of that arrangement.

For all of the Democrats’ contempt for Trump, it is he who is in touch with the harsh realities of the region, and they who are spouting policy positions completely unconnected to the facts about the conflict and the Palestinians.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has become the object of mainstream media scorn not because he is an amateur diplomat (as are many of those appointed to such positions in administrations of both parties), but because Trump’s envoy conceives of his position as one in which he is tasked with promoting better relations between the two countries, rather than acting—as his predecessors have done—as an imperial proconsul who is there to give orders to the Israelis.

Decades of American pressure on Israel never persuaded the Palestinians to reciprocate. Trump understands that and has instead treated Israel as a friend who doesn’t need to be ordered around. That’s why he did the right thing and moved the embassy, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and acknowledged its right to the Golan Heights, as those before him should have done decades ago.

If they defeat Trump, the Democrats will likely revive the carrot-and-stick approach. However, anyone who thinks that this will advance the cause of peace or human rights knows nothing about the history of the conflict or how friends united by common values ought to treat each other.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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