Top 10 headlines of 2018: American politics

A year of highlights and lowlights in Israel: American politics and Israel

December 30, 2018 15:14
Haley and Netanyahu

U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Nikki Haley meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem, June 7, 2017. (photo credit: U.S. EMBASSY JERUSALEM)


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WASHINGTON – The administration of US President Donald Trump had a mixed year in the Middle East: making new enemies, forging seedy alliances, sowing distrust among its longstanding partners and letting a full quarter of its term pass by without releasing its peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians.

But it wasn't all bad. Here are ten highs and lows from Washington in 2018.

Five Highs

1 - Armageddon is averted when the US moves it embassy to Jerusalem
Whether or not you supported Trump's relocation of America's embassy to Jerusalem – whether you thought it just, premature or unwise – one thing is verifiably true: The predicted regional firestorm never came to pass.
The potential for violence and instability was always a significant factor in Washington's risk assessments around the move, ever since Congress passed a law in 1995 directing the president to relocate the embassy there with haste. But presidents feared that the move would spark a third Intifada. It turns out that neither the Arab street nor its capitals convulsed – although Ivanka Trump, the president's Jewish daughter-in-law, did suffer an unfortunate split-screen moment as Gaza protests marked the embassy's grand opening ceremony in May. 

2 - Trump's team finds a way to fight back at the UN
Nikki Haley, the president's all-star UN envoy who is departing her post this year, became something of a hero in Israel circles for her fierce defense of the Jewish state in international fora.

But it was not only her forceful speeches that gained her praise. She also devised a new diplomatic strategy that has put Israel's most frequent critics on the defensive, by pairing initiatives hostile to Israel with US-led counter-initiatives that demand UN members hold the other side accountable for its part in the conflict.

Resolutions calling on the UN to condemn Hamas and Hezbollah, Haley charged, put members in an uncomfortable dilemma – forcing them either to change course or reveal their biases. The Trump administration now argues that the UN's failure to condemn terrorist organizations disqualifies it as an arbiter of peace.

3 - Trump's response to antisemitic violence matures
The president's response last year to a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, shocked the nation – and the Jewish world – when he refused to categorically condemn the scourge of antisemitism in America.

It seems like he heard the message. In October, after the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history struck Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Trump's response was resounding and clear.

"Antisemitism and the widespread persecution of Jews represent one off the ugliest and darkest features of human history," Trump said. "The vile, hate-filled poison of antisemitism must be condemned and confronted everywhere and anywhere it appears.

"Those seeking [the Jews'] destruction," the president warned: "We will seek their destruction."

At the time of the shooting, critics accused Trump of hosting a modern-day strain of antisemitism in his political movement that has led to a spike in antisemitic incidents over the last two years. White nationalists continue to identify with his presidency in polls and on social media forums. But Trump's Pittsburgh remarks seemed to mark a departure in his tone – and a newfound willingness to condemn the ugliest elements of his political base.

4 - Bipartisanship on Israel holds in Congress
Iuch attention has been paid to a handful of freshman Democratic lawmakers planning to disrupt Washington's status quo on Israel policy. But on Capitol Hill, among the Democratic and Republican Party leadership, there is little doubt that Israel legislation will remain friendly and bipartisan.

A 2016 memorandum of understanding on defense aid between the US and Israel was one of previous president Barack Obama's few accomplishments that Trump has actually embraced. All major Israel-related bills featured prominent authors from both parties, including the controversial Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which is opposed by several Democrats over free-speech concerns. And Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats' returning speaker of the House, assured a largely Republican audience this fall alongside Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer that congressional support for Israel would remain steadfast.

5 - The White House encourages burgeoning Israeli-Arab relations
While the Trump administration's Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative has yet to launch, elements of its outer core – a broader Israeli-Arab peace – have begun to emerge. They hint at a significant, behind-the-scenes US effort to bring Israel's quiet relations with Gulf states out into the open in 2019.

The previous administration did not fully capitalize on the potential for this alliance, focusing instead in its latter years on securing a nuclear agreement with Iran – arch rival to both Israel and the Sunni Arab states with whom they have now found partnership. Perhaps it is incidentally to Obama's credit that Israel and the Gulf states have discovered common interests, more so than any particular action Trump has taken in office. Nevertheless, Trump's administration does appear to have seized the moment and is actively encouraging formal ties that will bind these relationships long-term.

Five Lows

1 - US-Palestinian relations completely break down
The year began with Palestinian outrage over Trump's announcement that he would move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a move he carried out in May – and also recognize the ancient city as Israel's capital. Once that decision was made, it didn't take long for the Palestinians Authority to cut off contact with the administration, pulling its envoy from Washington and refusing meetings and calls from its top officials.

Months after Abbas's team began personally insulting members of Trump's peace team, they began hitting back with jabs of their own. Beyond painful – although temporary – aid cuts, perhaps the most dramatic and damaging move by the Trump team was to fold the US consulate in Jerusalem into the US embassy in Israel – ending America's longstanding, direct diplomatic channel to Ramallah.

The White House cuts aid to Israeli-Palestinian co-existence groups. Of all the aid cuts the Trump administration exacted on the PA in 2018, this small budget line of $10 million may have cut the deepest. Administration officials struggled to explain the purpose of slashing funds to a program intended on fostering goodwill across conflict lines, ahead of a diplomatic initiative ostensibly meant to forge lasting peace.

The White House also cut $165 million in PA assistance over its practice of compensating the families of convicted terrorists; slashed aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, east Jerusalem hospitals, and direct assistance to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; withdrew from UN bodies apparently biased against Israel; and closed the PA's offices in Washington.

2 - White House cuts aid to Israeli-Palestinian co-existence groups 
Of all the aid cuts the Trump administration exacted on the PA in 2018, this small budget line of $10 million may have cut the deepest. Administration officials struggled to explain the purpose of slashing funds to a program intended on fostering goodwill across conflict lines ahead of a diplomatic initiative ostensibly meant to forge lasting peace.

The White House also cut $165 million in PA assistance over its practice of compensating the families of convicted terrorists, slashed aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, east Jerusalem hospitals, and direct assistance to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, withdrew from UN bodies apparently biased against Israel and closed the PA's offices in Washington.

3 - Trump offers morally bankrupt response to Jamal Khashoggi's murder
In the old days, whenever an authoritarian government would murder and dismember one of its nationals in its own consulate overseas, America's president would speak up and act. But few expected Trump to rise to the occasion – and indeed, he fulfilled expectations with a response completely dearth of moral clarity.

The Trump administration did sanction several Saudi officials complicit in the murder of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and US resident working as a columnist critical of Riyadh. But faced with unequivocal evidence from US intelligence agencies, Trump refused to accept their high-confidence assessment that Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, bore responsibility for the killing. "Maybe he did, maybe he didn't," Trump said.

It was a moment that engendered dismay abroad and bipartisan fury at home, where lawmakers implored the president not to trade America's historical role as moral leader for US arms sales.

4 - Trump retreats from Syria
The president publicly acknowledged the dangers Israel would face if he withdrew US troops from Syria, where they stand as the only force blocking a continuous Iranian front stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean. But he did it anyway.

The decision reinforced Trump's worst instincts in several respects. He rebuffed dozens of allies that the US has led in the fight against Islamic State – let alone Israel – by failing to consult them before announcing the move. He did not listen to or request the counsel of his own national security cabinet or advisers (he claimed to not even know his own top anti-ISIS adviser, Brett McGurk, who resigned in protest alongside Defense Secretary Jim Mattis). He could not justify the move with clarity, shifting defenses from day to day. And he sought recrimination against those who criticized his policy based on principal.

5 - The White House repeatedly delays the release of its peace plan
Trump's Middle East peace team doesn't even bother to explain anymore the repeated postponement of its much anticipated diplomatic process with Israel and the Palestinians.

The president's top aides say they are waiting for the right time to release their plan, fearful their proposals will be dead on arrival if they are released under the wrong circumstances. But the longer they have waited, the worse the environment for a peace process has become. The Palestinians now completely dismiss the administration – and one of its key allies, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, faces too many pressures at home and abroad to be relied upon to deliver the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

So long as the administration does not release its plan – now two years later and counting – it effectively does not have a policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rendering Washington's once powerful voice mute, as facts on the ground continue to shift in Gaza and the West Bank.

Now, with Israeli elections called for April, the Trump plan will likely be delayed once again. Its hoped-for release this coming summer will give the White House just over a year to negotiate peace before the US presidential election in 2020.

Edited by Natan Rothstein

Read all of the year's top highlights and lowlights:
IDF | Palestinians | Legal system | Politics | Economy | Diplomacy | Religion | Culture | Settlements

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