U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at Newark International airport, June 9, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS/YURI GRIPAS/FILE PHOTO)
Although US President Donald Trump made a host of widely-publicized pledges to strengthen the US-Israeli relationship during his presidential campaign, his five-month old administration has shown few tangible signs of movement on any of them. It has passed on opportunities to move the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and to scrap the Iran nuclear deal. And it certainly doesn’t appear to be undertaking a major rethink about how to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace.
But credit the White House with making one critically important, lower-profile change, evident in the reaction of Trump’s peace envoy to the June 16 killing of Border Police officer Hadas Malka by Palestinian terrorists outside of Jerusalem’s Old City.
“The United States stands with our ally Israel and condemns the savage terrorist attack in Jerusalem,” tweeted Trump’s lead international negotiator Jason Greenblatt as he was leaving on a trip to Israel. After visiting the family of the deceased on June 19, he released a prepared statement saying “[St.-] Sgt. Major [Hadas] Malka was murdered by terrorists,” with a bit at the end about Trump’s vision for a Middle East free from “threats of terrorism and extremism.”
If all that seems pretty typical of how an American envoy would react to a deadly terrorist attack against a longstanding US ally, that’s precisely the point. Under previous administrations, it had become standard practice in reacting to terrorist attacks against Israelis to urge Israel (or both sides) to “exercise restraint,” “not escalate tensions any further,” “avoid any kind of innocent civilian casualties,” “avoid... making provocative statements that can further inflame tensions,” and various other equivalents.
This practice of singling Israel out for what can best be described as victim-shaming is unique in the annals of American diplomacy. Most countries get unmitigated expressions of sympathy after experiencing terrorist attacks. “Each and every American stands with you today. We stand with you in solidarity... to the cause of confronting extremism,” said secretary of state John Kerry in response to the January 2016 Paris terrorist attacks. Nothing about avoiding provocations or not escalating tensions.
Even Pakistan got straight-up State Department condolences last year, without any insulting riders or caveats.
Of course, admonitions to avoid doing bad things after being attacked crop up at times in US handling of countries like Lebanon and Syria, where the absence of a functioning state has given rise to ethno-sectarian score-settling, and China, which has been prone to excesses in responding to terrorist attacks, but the usage of this rhetoric doesn’t seem to have been routine.
It goes without saying that singling out Israel is unfair – any country willing to turn the other cheek when under repeated Scud missile attack by Saddam Hussein doesn’t need lessons on restraint. But even if it did, it’s difficult to imagine a less effective way of counseling an ally than demeaning it publicly every time it is murderously attacked.
This is the Middle East’s lone true democracy and a regional oasis of women’s rights and minority freedoms we’re talking about. Pretending otherwise only legitimizes extremists obsessed with demonizing, boycotting, and ultimately destroying Israel.
Why, then, the deliberate projection of false moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli self-defense? It’s partly the result of decades of Arab diplomatic pressure, and partly a result of the Stockholm Syndrome-like belief among State Department careerists that Palestinian leaders won’t come to (or at any rate stay at) the table unless they and their narrative are accorded the same respect and acknowledgment as Israel’s.
Hopefully the changing substance and tenor of US public statements about Israel reflects a discarding of such faulty assumptions, a willingness to help build Israel’s confidence rather than undermine it, and greater commitment to letting this loyal ally get on with the business of combating Islamist terrorism the way it knows best.The author is director of the Middle East Forum and a former official in the defense and foreign ministries