Could Ukraine’s role in impeachment scandal hit U.S.-Israel relations?

Ukraine scandal in US reveals increasing politicization of US foreign policy

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in March (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in March
(photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
The growing revelations about how US officials played a role in Ukraine amid the impeachment hearings in Washington reveal how US foreign policy has become increasingly politicized. Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, the details that have come out of the impeachment hearings show that US officials over the years have been linked to partisan attempts, in both Kiev and Washington, to influence policymaking.
How does this work? According to critics of US President Donald Trump, the testimony shows that the president sought to withhold aid in exchange for information about Joe Biden’s son that would allegedly look bad for Joe Biden, who is running for the Democratic nomination. According to Trump supporters, the hearings are largely just an attack and distraction against the president and the real story is that Ukraine meddled in US elections in 2016. This now means that both Democrats and Republicans claim that foreign countries and foreign policy are closely linked to US elections. This is not just about Ukraine but also Russia.
The scandal has brought in an ever-expanding circle of people connected US policy in Ukraine, and by extension US policy relating to Russia as well. During a crises in 2014 in Ukraine, the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced from power by pro-Western demonstrators. It is largely forgotten now, but Russia viewed the US role in the Ukrainian protests that pushed Yanukovych from office as meddling in Russia’s near abroad. A leaked conversation posted to Youtube in 2014 between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt appeared to show that the US was discussing who should next lead Ukraine. The US official also cursed the EU. “The Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it,” the US ambassador says, according to Reuters.
Pyatt was succeeded by Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador who gave testimony to the House Oversight and Reform, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees as part of the inquiry into Trump’s Biden investigation. She spoke about an “unfortunate alliance” between Ukrainians and Americans who sought to subvert her role. She said that ideally foreign policy should not be partisan. But it increasingly looks like foreign countries are working directly with US political operatives so that both countries can influence each other’s politics. The former US ambassador said that when “we are dealing with other countries, it needs to be about what is right for the United States.”
The picture that emerges is that US politicians now increasingly go to foreign countries to get dirt on people within the US, and they view foreign countries or partisan politics in those countries as allies against their own political adversaries. Foreign countries also understand now that what they need to do in the US to get foreign policies that are favorable is to work directly with one party or another until it comes to office. They may work with former US government officials even hiring them as lobbyists to get what they want. They try to read the cards in terms of which party might win the next elections, and work with people on off-years who are out of office, paying them, and waiting until that person will then be back in an official capacity.
In Ukraine’s instance, the political party of Yanukovych worked with Paul Manafort, who eventually became Trump’s campaign chief from May to August 2016, according to NBC. In that case the Ukrainian pro-Russian politicians didn’t know that they might be working with someone who would be close to the next president of the United States. In the latest discussions in the US about whether Ukrainian officials were more sympathetic to Hilary Clinton in 2016, the issue of Manafort rarely comes up. But it shows how Ukrainians who were critical of Russia would logically move toward Clinton who was seen as more supportive of their cause. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and was supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Getting support from the next US administration was key to Ukraine.
The Ukraine scandal has wide-ranging implications for US policy in the world and also in the Middle East. If foreign governments, or political parties abroad, work directly with Americans who end up in an administration, it raises questions about that person’s ability to conduct foreign policy. It is also unclear why so many Americans who have served at the highest levels of government need to take salaries from foreign countries as lobbyists or in other capacities. It’s deeper than just having countries, whether Russia, Turkey, Qatar or others, seek influence in the US. Countries also use other methods, bankrolling think-tanks or media to acquire influence.
Who is using who in these scenarios? The US also meddles in the politics of foreign countries. It does this in a variety of ways, not just by quietly supporting local political parties. Allegations about US-based funding for initiatives abroad, from universities to various civil society initiatives sometimes portray the US as trying to change foreign countries from within. But the Ukraine scandal reveals that this is a two-way street. The US sought to support Ukrainians who opposed Russia, but those Ukrainians also sought to work with those in the US most likely to support them.
This gets complicated when dealing with the increased partisanship that has put US policy toward Israel in the limelight during the Trump administration. Trump has made changes to some longstanding US policies on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and relations with the Palestinians. However, this has put Israel in a difficult position because many Trump critics now see Israel as a “Trump issue.” That means opposing Trump can catch Israel in the mix. Many Democratic candidates – such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – have been harshly critical of Israel, mostly in relation to Trump’s politics. This could affect US support for Israel, and also financial support for key Israeli military programs that include Israel working closely with the US. It’s not entirely clear if that’s the case, but increasingly Israel is a divisive issue among some Democrats, when it used to be an issue of near-total bipartisan support.
The Israel-US partisanship, like Ukraine, goes deeper than just US support for Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was excoriated by Obama administration officials, and the administrations had a difficult relationship. Netanyahu was accused of supporting US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. The Obama administration was accused of supporting an Israeli NGO that opposed Netanyahu in the 2015 elections. US-based political donors who are linked to right wing Israeli politics also add fuel to the controversy because they are seen as influencing both Israeli and American politics. That could mean funding media in Israel and then funding Republican candidates in the US. But it can go the other way as well, with funders on the left doing the same. Nothing is as simple as it is portrayed though. George Soros, often accused by the right as being behind numerous causes, was disappointed by Obama in 2008 after his support for Obama and other liberal democratic causes didn’t get him much time with the administration, according to a 2018 New York Times report.
So far the Ukraine scandal has mostly involved Ukraine and Russia. But there are larger issues at stake. The more that foreign governments think the best way to influence US policy is to seek favors with one political party or another, the more US policy will change every four or eight years with each new administration. Foreign countries won’t be able to rely on US consistency. That will create a vicious circle of them seeking to play more and more of a role in US domestic politics. This will also feed various struggles abroad, such as the way the Qatar-Saudi crisis plays out in US domestic politics through financial incentives to influencers and seeking to gain access to Washington via various channels.
This has implications for Israel as well, because Israel needs friends and allies in the Middle East. When there is a nexus of partisan political support for one party in the US and one party abroad, and that nexus begins to gather more and more people together linked to other countries and parties, it risks the entire US political policy-making apparatus and process being balkanized and, in the worst case, corrupted. Foreign countries should watch the hearings closely to see if the US will try to right an unstable foreign policy-making ship, or scuttle it and ruin the pretense of non-partisan policymaking.