Many Israelis are feeling optimistic about the Trump administration, and it’s easy to see why. During eight years of tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there was a feeling that despite the highest levels of military and strategic cooperation between the two countries, Israel was often seen as more of an annoyance than ally over settlements and peace initiatives. By contrast, President Trump has treated Netanyahu as friend and partner, giving full voice to American support for Israel and putting the Palestinians on the defensive for their failure to make peace.
Trump has wavered on his initial pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly significant, if symbolic, step, and has backed off of his full support for settlement expansion. Still, the sense is that this administration is comfortable favoring Israeli over its neighbors, and has returned to the “no daylight” position of pre-Obama presidents in seeking public positions that indicate solidarity between Washington and Jerusalem on key policies.
In private, though, Israeli leaders are worried that the Trump administration has no coherent foreign policy on the Mideast. The president’s campaign pledge to have a policy in place within 30 days to defeat ISIS remains to be seen. U.S. policy on the out-of-control Syrian civil war is unclear, especially since Trump seems loathe to confront Russian President Putin, whose forces have become Syrian President Assad’s greatest ally, while the U.S. has been increasingly irrelevant to the conflict. Perhaps most disturbing, Trump, who insisted as a candidate that he would tear up the Iran nuclear agreement upon taking office, has made no such a move — and has not revealed an alternative. It’s clear that voices in the region, including, presumably, Netanyahu, warned that a U.S. withdrawal from the deal at this point would be a mistake. It would leave the U.S. with no choices in preventing a nuclear Iran other than the military option. Instead there have been calls for tighter sanctions against Tehran, which the Obama administration endorsed as well.
The crisis isn’t imminent; Iran is years away from being able to produce nuclear weapons as a result of the deal, but some coherent plan is needed sooner than later. And Israeli leaders are concerned that highly qualified and experienced American officials are being prevented from serving in key administration foreign policy posts because of Trump’s thin skin. A prime example is Elliott Abrams, who served in key positions under Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, and was Secretary of State Tillerson’s choice for the No. 2 job at State. But Trump rejected Abrams on learning that he had opposed his candidacy during the campaign.
It’s time for the president to back up his warm feelings toward Israel with policies that will assure its security.