The Ticking Political Clocks Shaping the U.S.-Israel Relationship
1. Race to the finish line
Two ticking political clocks will shape the face of U.S.-Israel relations in the year to come. In Washington, DC, an administration and Congress already in full election-year mode are rapidly losing interest in the Middle East and foreign policy in general. In the past three years, Donald Trump and the Republicans have learned that Israel is not only an important ally to America but also a political bonanza. Their positions on Israel, the settlements and the Palestinian issue won them unprecedented support from Israel (remember the Trump train station in Jerusalem? And the Trump village in the Golan Heights?) as well as cementing backing at home among Orthodox Jewish voters and, perhaps more important, Christian evangelicals. Not to mention the fact that Democrats found it hard to push back against the key elements of Trump’s Israel policy, including relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan.
With just under a year to go, Trump, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would really like to fit in another one or two major moves—a grand peace plan, greenlighting Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley or the signing of a mutual defense treaty between the two countries.
And this is where the other political clock comes into play, the one ticking in Jerusalem. Israel has been running without a fully functioning government for about a year and may be facing several more months of stalemate if the country ends up heading to a third-round of elections. What this means is that advancing any of these major moves before Americans head to the polls is almost impossible.
2. Keystone U.S.-Israel treaty is causing rift inside Israel
The most significant gesture waiting for its moment in the sun is the mutual defense treaty, an agreement that would upgrade the already close defense relations between the two countries and provide a (primarily symbolic) American protective umbrella to Israel.
But in order to reach such a treaty, dealmakers in Washington and Jerusalem need to overcome two hurdles: time running out for both Netanyahu and Trump, and the lack of agreement within Israel concerning the need for such a treaty.
On the first issue, little can be done. The deal will not move forward before there is a new government in Israel, and by the time one is established, the U.S. administration will already be too late in its term to negotiate, sign and get the Senate to affirm such a major treaty.
Inside Israel, the idea of a mutual defense treaty is a matter of fierce debate. For years, Israel’s military establishment opposed the notion of entering such a deal, arguing it would limit Israel’s ability to independently defend itself and subject Israel to prior American consent before taking military action. On Monday, Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party who is aiming to unseat Netanyahu, expressed his strong opposition to the idea and accused Netanyahu of rushing into a treaty that would “tie the hands of our security forces and run counter to the longstanding position of [the Israeli] defense system.”
The deal’s supporters argue that these are baseless concerns and that a mutual defense treaty will not condition Israeli military actions on American approval, just as Turkey, for example, did not seek NATO’s greenlight before its recent incursion into Syria.
3. Jared’s peace plan moves to the back-back-back burner
The other major file in U.S.-Israel relations waiting on the president’s table is the Middle East peace plan, once crowned the “deal of the century” and now referred to simply as a “vision” for peace in the Middle East.
With less than a year to go, it’s clear that chances of the plan getting presented and then gaining any kind of traction are close to zero. The Trump administration has all but moved on. Special envoy Jason Greenblatt left the White House. Jared Kushner, who pretty much owned the portfolio, has shifted his focus to building his father-in-law’s border wall. And Israel, of course, has no government to accept, reject or negotiate the plan, if and when it is rolled out.
Will the administration present the plan despite its inevitable failure?
Not as an operative plan to be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather as a set of ideas that could be adopted, in part or as a whole, by Israel and perhaps endorsed by some of the Gulf states. It’s a very modest goal for a peace plan, but truth be told, more ambitious and thought-out peace initiatives by previous administrations hadn’t achieved much more.
4. Michael Bloomberg’s Jewish voter appeal
With former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg officially in the presidential race, Democrats have the choice between four Jewish candidates: Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders, Marianne Williamson and Michael Bennet (whose mother was a Jewish Holocaust survivor).
In many ways, the Jewishness of the candidates is no more than anecdotal. After all, none of them are running as the “Jewish candidate.” But as Ami Eden points out at JTA, Bloomberg and Sanders symbolize the shift in the politics of many American Jews: still Democratic, still liberal, but more in tune with Bloomberg’s fiscal worldview than with the democratic socialist approach of Sanders (and their grandparents).
5. Trump to talk Israel
On Saturday, Trump will keynote the annual Israeli-American Council (IAC)’s conference in South Florida. Though no major announcements are expected in the speech, it does nonetheless carry some importance: It shows Trump views Israeli Americans as a constituency, perhaps paving the way for a future Republican alliance with Israeli ex-pats. It demonstrates the importance Trump sees in showing respect to the main funder of the group, Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. And it’s a huge get for the IAC, an up-and-coming group that has landed the most coveted of speakers.