Opinion

Make the U.S.-Israel Alliance Great Again

Meeting between Trump and Netanyahu should reaffirm shared values and interests

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber in 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

On Wednesday, Israel’s prime minister will come to the White House to meet with President Donald Trump. The last time Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, he only spent time at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue — delivering a controversial address to Congress urging it to reject then-President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a tactic that riled Obama and his aides.

The final year of the Obama presidency included an agreement under which the United States will provide Israel with $38 billion in aid over the next decade. But that was the exception to the rule of Obama placing what he infamously termed “daylight” between his administration and Netanyahu’s Likud government.

The rift began in 2009 with Obama insisting upon a settlement freeze, and was deepened by Obama’s Cairo Address that ignored the historic connection of the Jews to the holy land. It culminated in 2016 with Obama’s refusal to veto an anti-Israel resolution in the U.N. Security Council.

Against this backdrop, Trump appealed to pro-Israel Christians and Jews with campaign promises to repair the relationship with Israel, reverse the nuclear deal with Iran and relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And it paid off as Trump overwhelmingly won the majority of votes cast by evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews on Election Day.

Since coming into office, Trump and his team have taken the first steps toward a tougher line on Iran and issued an official statement with only moderate caution on Israeli settlement expansion, although they’ve tapped the brakes on relocating the embassy to Jerusalem.

But what pro-Israel Americans will be watching closely is what emerges from the first sit-down between president and prime minister, knowing that will chart their working relationship for the coming months. Here are some specific policy announcements that will be most welcome:

  • Pick up “where Obama left off” — and reverse it.  The Obama Administration refused to veto U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, an anti-Israel measure that designated even the Western Wall to be illegally occupied territory by Israel. Mr. Trump (who publicly called for Obama to veto the resolution) should clearly state that his Administration will give the resolution no weight. Moreover, Trump should commit now to vetoing and blocking any moves by the Palestinians or their allies to use U.N. agencies or other international venues to make an end-run around direct negotiations with Israel.
  • Pick up “where Bush left off” — and expand it. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon formally exchanged letters in April 2004 affirming a set of understandings that the Obama Administration refused to recognize. These included recognizing the “realities” that, should there be a peace deal, Israel would not return to pre-1967 borders. The principles of the letters were endorsed by overwhelming bipartisan votes in Congress. President Trump should reaffirm the principles of these letters and make explicit what was understood by many — that Israel can legitimately engage in construction within existing settlement blocs. This is consistent with the tone of the statement issued by White House press secretary Sean Spicer on February 2.
  • Set the U.S. ground rules for a peace process. President Trump said he would be interested in facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations toward “the ultimate deal” and is prepared to put his most senior aides, including Jared Kushner, on the case. But Trump should be clear about what it will take for him to indeed dedicate time and political capital to this effort. These should include Palestinians recognizing Israel’s right to exist and her role as the historic homeland for the Jewish people, as well the Palestinians ending all support for terrorism — including their codified practice of paying financial stipends (with American taxpayer dollars) to the families of terrorists.
  • To make clear to the Palestinians that such steps are the only route to any U.S. Administration support, the president should announce his intention to veer from past precedent and refuse to sign a national security waiver in June that will further delay the relocation of America’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
  • Finally, with regard to Iran, President Trump should restate his critical view of the Obama Administration’s nuclear deal and that he is directing his national security team to develop a working group with Israel and other key regional allies to develop a closely coordinated strategy to counteract Iran’s nefarious activities.For eight years, Obama spoke of his high hopes for resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict. But his obsession with where Jews live in the holy land and apparent disinterest in Palestinian rejectionism of Israel drove the parties further apart from negotiations, let alone resolution.

Donald Trump may not have the opportunity to broker “the ultimate deal”; that can only happen with the agreement of the two both parties to the conflict. But he can use his upcoming meeting with Netanyahu to reassert that America’s bedrock alliance with Israel rests upon shared values and interests, and that this alliance is great again.

Nathan J. Diament is executive director for public policy of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

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