Trump's Israel Legacy: Second-Class Citizens No More
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 crowd based on what many felt had been a difficult past eight years for the U.S.-Israel relationship under President Obama. Upon hearing that line, the majority most likely assumed that should Trump be elected, the U.S.-Israel relationship would return to something akin to a George W. Bush or Bill Clinton relationship. In both cases, it was a warm relationship, and the Obama administration had been a sharp departure from that. However, the phrase "second-class citizens" didn't appear to have specific meaning.
Though many supporters of the U.S.-Israel relationship certainly hoped Trump would live up to his campaign promises, there was still skepticism: would Trump be fundamentally different from previous presidents on issues like Jerusalem and the settlements, and would he take that major step of leaving the Iran deal? Yes, these issues were important to his evangelical base, and there were pro-Israel figures among Trump's campaign, but how he would operate as president remained unknown.
As we witnessed over the past four years, the Trump administration's approach to Israel was qualitatively different from all previous administrations'. Jared Kushner voiced this difference by saying previous administrations viewed being openly pro-Israel as inhibiting peace, whereas in reality, the opposite happened. Additionally, he dismissed the notion of America being an honest broker. "[P]eople used a false notion of America being an honest broker…but America is not impartial. 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 taken were the administration's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, declaring that Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria are legal, taking swift and decisive action at the U.N. to quash anti-Israel resolutions, putting international institutions discriminating against Israel on notice that this behavior will no longer be tolerated, cutting off the numerous channels that the Palestinian Authority used to delegitimize Israel, and declaring the BDS movement anti-Semitic.
There were other symbolic moves, such as President Trump visiting Israel on his first foreign trip and being the first president to visit the Western Wall, Secretary Pompeo being the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Judea and Samaria, and Secretary Pompeo encouraging Israel to defeat its enemies decisively — all of which were a stark contrast to previous administrations, which spoke in terms only of Israel defending itself.
Though the Trump administration supported Israel like no other U.S. administration, an objective analysis might not render the actions extraordinary or out of the realm of how one country treats a close ally. Recognizing the stated capital of an ally, recognizing sovereignty over land vital to an ally's security and captured in a defensive war, and combatting diplomatically those who would destroy an ally are all normal actions a country would take.
Yet, retrospectively, Israel had been subject to and accepted many norms in its existence that were hardly normal for a regular country. It was precisely that status that made Trump's actions all the more remarkable. However, in essence, Trump's actions affirmed his promise at the AIPAC conference that the days of "treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one" of his presidency.
This dynamic of the Trump administration seeing policy actions as the way to treat an ally was on display when Secretary Pompeo announced in a press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu that the United States would be declaring the BDS movement "anti-Semitic" and moving to cut off U.S. support for organizations in favor of it. Pompeo expressed the sentiment that this action wasn't extraordinary; rather, it was the normal course of action. He said to Netanyahu, "I know this may sound simple...a statement of fact." However, Netanyahu, used to the second-class treatment, expressed the sentiment of how not normal and taken for granted such an action is: "It doesn't sound simple. It sounds simply wonderful."
Treating Israel as a normal country extended to other areas. It was that perspective that led to President Trump publicly questioning why Israel would allow Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar to visit the country when their only purpose was to slander and create a P.R. disaster for Israel. This same treatment was manifested when Trump decided that it was necessary to pull U.S. troops out of Syria despite Israeli concerns, which he dismissed by reminding Israel that the United States gives $4.5 billion to Israel in order to defend itself.
With the dawn of the new Biden administration, there will be sharp policy changes concerning Israel and the Middle East. Putting aside all of the actions taken in support of Israel, both the symbolic and concrete, as well as the private and the public, one of the major gifts that the Trump administration leaves Israel with is that it should no longer see itself as or accept a reality where it is 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.
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