Opinion | The Elephant in the Impeachment Inquiry

Will the process damage the American-Israeli relationship?
By | Oct 28, 2019

With Syria in turmoil, the Kurds in flight and its own government in prolonged limbo, the last thing Israel probably wants to worry about right now is an American impeachment process.

For that matter, the possible effects of impeachment on Israel aren’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind for American political junkies, either. We all know the old saw about the Jewish newspaper that publishes an article on “The Elephant and the Jewish Question.” And yet, at the risk of seeming similarly obsessed, it is worth asking what effect the possibility of impeachment will have on the already increasingly complicated U.S.-Israel relationship.

It’s a difficult question, particularly now. In the past few years, the connection between the United States and Israel has been focused to an unusual degree on the personal bond between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump. Impeachment aside, we don’t yet know Netanyahu’s political fate, and even if Netanyahu secures the prime ministership once again, the necessary deal-making might clip his wings in significant ways. His pending indictments might also affect his power and influence—even if he stares down those who would demand that he resign, if, that is, he is in fact indicted. It is telling that after the last Israeli election, Trump spoke of the bonds between the United States and Israel without mentioning Bibi. Can it be that our president does not like associating with losers?

At its core, the U.S.-Israel relationship is not dependent on individuals but on the broad sympathy the United States public still holds for the Jewish state. So even without Trump or Bibi, the relationship will remain solid.

At the same time, the region around them is in turmoil. Even before the abandonment of the Kurds, the American failure to respond forcibly (militarily or otherwise) to Iran’s recent adventures in the Gulf caused sleepless nights in the oil kingdoms. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the president’s sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Syrian border, allowing Turkey to invade northern Syria to attack our allies the Kurds, scrambling the players and alliances and strengthening the hand of the Russians. That move sent shock waves through American allies in the Middle East, who saw it as a warning sign to those who rely overmuch on American promises to defend them.

That reaction holds true even in Israel. Writing in the center-right Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, diplomatic correspondent Shimon Shiffer declared that Trump’s decision on the Syrian withdrawal and his “abandoning of the Kurdish allies, who believed that the U.S. would stand with them… must set all our red lights flashing.”

Impeachment adds yet more variables. I see two potential scenarios.

1) There is an impeachment process leading to a House vote.

If this happens, the president will lean even more heavily on his base—particularly evangelicals—to attempt to block the outcome. He may act to underscore his commitment to Israel in the strongest possible terms. (This holds true even if American Jews overwhelmingly support impeachment—as is likely, since they’re mostly Democrats. Trump’s solicitude for Israel is driven by his relations with evangelicals, not Jews.) He would likely accede to any Israeli initiatives to increase Israeli control over the West Bank. Prospects will dim for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on terms other than abject surrender by the Palestinians (which also won’t happen).

2) There is a trial and conviction in the Senate.

I consider this event highly unlikely, as it would require the president’s Republican support in the Senate to crumble. But if, by some unexpected chain of events, Trump is removed from office, in my view the evangelicals and the Christian Zionists will ironically have less, not more, influence on events in the Middle East. A President Mike Pence, notwithstanding his religiosity and strong evangelical credentials, will find himself with much less room to maneuver—at least before the 2020 election. If Israel takes any actions that reprise Bibi’s right-wing antics, and Democrats mount serious opposition to it, Pence’s political incentives to push back will be weak. He will already have the evangelical vote, so he won’t need to court it with strong pro-Israel actions; and the Democrats, not reliant on evangelicals’ support, will not be constrained by any need to please them.

If impeachment proceeds, I also doubt the much delayed and still murky Trump peace plan will see the light of day. Israel does not really want it, and rolling it out now will give Trump little or no benefit from the evangelical right.

Meanwhile, whatever the outcome, a long impeachment process could inadvertently exacerbate existing Middle East tensions. Some of our allies already seem uncertain whether the United States under an embattled Trump has the staying power to control events there. Although attention is focused elsewhere, the United Arab Emirates has pulled its ground troops from the Yemen conflict, and there are signs that it is seeking rapprochement with Iran. Saudi Arabia may be doing so as well. We are also likely to see, in the words of Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, “the end of the much heralded but overhyped development of quiet ties between Israel and the Gulf states.” If the Gulf states are going to mute their opposition to Iran, this quietly building alliance will not stand.

As for Iran, if Israel fears that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East, it might feel it needs to be less fettered in responding to any Iranian adventurism in Lebanon or Syria or Iraq. And the Iranians, if they perceive the American military threat receding, might easily miscalculate. It might be alarmist to imagine that the ripples from impeachment in Washington could heighten the danger of armed conflict between Israel and Iran. But uncertainty and instability bring hazards for everyone, Israel included.

Marshall Breger is a law professor at Catholic University.

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