March 21, 2019 marked several big league junctures in American-Israeli relations. What some might call “yuge”. You might have picked up on a few phrases that are unmistakably attributed to the vernacular of a certain loud-mouthed executive. Yes, I am referring to Donald J. Trump, former reality TV show host who became a household name by famously pointing his finger at aspiring entrepreneurs and declaring “You’re fired!” But in his new position as Commander-in-Chief and President of the United States, Trump has allowed his actions to speak just as loudly as his inarticulate words (e.g. despite his catchphrase on “The Apprentice”, the US unemployment rate lingers around the natural rate of the economy, for reasons including corporate tax cuts and regulation slashing under Trump).
If there is one personality trait that people have unanimously ascribed to Trump, it has been his quickness to judgement. Interpretation of this characteristic has starkly divided the nation. Supporters have praised his instincts and ability to act quickly and decisively. Trump advised on Twitter in February 2013, “Develop your gut instincts and act on them.” On the other hand, critics have admonished the President for lacking a brain-to-mouth filter and speaking prematurely on matters that might require prolonged deliberation. No matter what your stance on this dichotomy, there is no denying that Trump has relied on his intuition to guide his administration’s approach to American-Israeli relations. In a 2016 speech during the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, Trump stated, “I speak to you today as a lifelong supporter and true friend of Israel.”
On March 21, 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, echoed his sentiment on Instagram, saying of Trump, “!אין לנו חבר טוב ממנו” or “We do not have a better friend!” in English. What sparked this praise? In the short-term (restricted to March 21, 2019), President Trump announced on Twitter, that the time has come for the US to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Mike Pompeo became the first top US diplomat to visit the Western Wall alongside a senior Israeli official (i.e. Netanyahu), and ISIS surrendered the last stronghold of its caliphate. Long-term (a period since his inauguration), President Trump has headed an administration that has consistently supported the Jewish State on the world stage, perhaps establishing him as the most pro-Israel US President, ever.
President Trump has maintained the status quo by supporting Israel, through methods such as granting the nation significant military aid and protecting Israel against disproportionate censure by members of the United Nations (in spite of one notable abstention by the outgoing Obama Administration in 2016 on a Security Councilresolution that condemned Israeli settlements). What has set Trump apart, however, has been a series of his administration’s firsts on policy regarding Israel. Here are a number of decisive stances President Trump has taken on Israel, making him the first US President to take the position:
Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem
On December 6, 2017, President Trump made history by becoming the first sitting US President to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. A little over five months later, on May 14, 2018, also the 51st anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War, the US unveiled its embassy in Jerusalem. In a pre-recorded message during the ceremony, Trump congratulated the crowd, noting “It’s been a long time coming.” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin clarified his statement, remarking, “In every US election, every presidential candidate has promised to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Finally, we have a leader who promised it and also kept his promise.”
Recognizing Israeli Sovereignty Over the Golan Heights
On the morning of March 21, 2019, President Trump announced another one of his historic positions, over his favorite medium: Twitter. In 35 words, Trump overturned the longstanding American policy on the disputed territory: “After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” Israel seized the region from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War, later annexing the territory in 1981 despite international criticism. The US foreshadowed the policy change when it released its annual human rights report last week, referring to the Golan, the West Bank, and Gaza as “Israeli-controlled” instead of the “Israeli-occupied” of past.
First Sitting US President to Visit the Western Wall
On May 22, 2017, President Trump disrupted the historical record again by becoming the first sitting US president to visit the Old City of Jerusalem as well as the Western Wall, a piece of the Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. and Judaism’s holiest intact site. The White House noted that the visit was unofficial and Israeli PM Netanyahu did not accompany the president to the Old City. Still, in joint remarks with Netanyahu later that day, Trump professed that he was “deeply moved” by the experience and that “it will leave an impression on me forever.” Trump made the visit with his Jewish daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. While alone at the Wall, Trump placed his palm on the Wall silently and took part in the tradition of placing a prayer note between the stones of the Wall. Trump made the trip to Israel—aboard the first-ever direct flight from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv—during his first foreign visit as President, becoming the first US president to do so.
On March 21, 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed in his boss’ footsteps in becoming the first top US diplomat to visit Judaism’s holiest site with a senior Israeli official; namely, Prime Minister Netanyahu. Pompeo participated in the same formalities as the President, later touring the Wall and its adjacent tunnels. The magnitude of Pompeo’s visit is arguably more significant that of Trump’s visit because Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, is not recognized by the international community.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump. | Pool/Getty Images North America
Decertifying the Iran Deal
On May 8, 2018, President Trump dismantled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or more widely known as “the Iran Deal”. The deal was an agreement reached by Iran along with China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, Germany, and the European Union on the Iranian nuclear program on July 14, 2015. Trump’s opposition to the deal involved the inclusion of provisions known as the “sunset clause” that would allow Iran to resume enriching uranium in 2030 and thus complete its pursuit of a nuclear weapons program. This clause was equally if not more concerning to Israel, who has been targeted as the “Little Satan” by the Iranian regime (America being the “Great Satan”) and calls by Iranian leaders to wipe Israel off the face of the map. Granting Iran the ability to fulfill its wishes of nuclear genocide led Israel to investigate the country’s nuclear weapons program independently. Days before Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the agreement, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu revealed Israeli intelligence depicting Iran’s secret plan to maintain its nuclear weapons program despite the agreement. Netanyahu revealed Israel’s possession of 100,000 files on paper and disks—obtained from a hidden archive in Tehran—which uncover Iran’s deception regarding its claim that it lacks nuclear ambitions.
Defeating the ISIS Caliphate
During an address to a joint session of Congress in 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained American and Israel’s shared foes in the Middle East were not only the Iranians but also a radical Islamic militant group plaguing the region, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Netanyahu amended a popular adage to say, “when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy, is your enemy.” Trump has dealt mercilessness with the Iranians, withdrawing from the JCPOA and leveling immense sanctions on the regime, crippling its economy. However, he has been even more severe in America’s fight to eradicate the ISIS caliphate. On March 21, 2019, the village of Baghouz in Syria, the last ISIS stronghold, was liberated, indicating the end of the caliphate’s reign of terror. In a five-day offensive, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attacked ISIS from three sides, pushing the fighters back against the Euphrates River. The result was the crumbling of the final corner of the caliphate in the far eastern desert of Syria, where ISIS first captured territory four-and-a-half years ago. Additionally, Trump has agreed to keep a number of US troops in Syria in order to “protect Israel” after early protests by Netanyahu over Trump’s decision to withdraw 2,000 soldiers from the country.
Rebuke of the United Nations
Followers of international politics know that the United Nations—the largest intergovernmental organization tasked with maintaining international peace and security—is not the biggest fan of Israel. According to UN Watch, a non-governmental organization that monitors the United Nations, from 2012-2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 97 resolutions specifically criticizing a particular country, 83 of which focused on Israel (86%). While Israel is not immune to censure, this comes in the midst of the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, the lack of basic human rights in North Korea, starving children in Venezuela, and the use of chemical weapons against citizens in Syria. In response, former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, together with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, announced the US withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on June 19, 2018 for reasons not excluding the council’s “chronic bias against Israel.”
Another branch of the UN that the US has said goodbye to is the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), most famous for its designation of “World Heritage Sites” that seek to preserve the world’s cultural and natural heritage. On October 12, 2017, the US announced its withdrawal from UNESCO, again citing anti-Israel bias. What sparked the decision, according to former Ambassador Haley was UNESCO’s designation of Hebron, a city in the West Bank, with its Tomb of the Patriarchs, as a Palestinian World Heritage site.
Finally, under Trump, the US has ended its aid contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which works to serve the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. UNRWA claims that the descendants of these refugees qualify as refugees themselves–a characterization that amounts to a figure of 5 million Palestinian refugees today. The State Department announced on August 31, 2018 that “the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years—tied to UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries—is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years. The United States will no longer commit further funding to this irredeemably flawed operation.”
US President Donald Trump in front of American and Israeli flags. Nicholas Kamm | AFP/Getty Images
Closure of PLO Office in Washington, DC
On September 10, 2018, national security adviser John Bolton announced the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, D.C. due to Palestinian refusal to “take steps to start direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.” Bolton also stated that “the United States will always stand with our friend and ally, Israel.” The reason for the decision also came after Palestinian calls for Israel to be investigated at the International Criminal Court (ICC). To this, Bolton asserted, “The United States supports a direct and robust peace process, and we will not allow the ICC or any other organization, to constrain Israel’s right to self-defense.” The move was not meant to signal an end to US commitment to negotiating a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
Clearly, the executive branch has acted decisively with regard to Israel, supporting the Jewish State like no administration has done in the past. Congress has shown its support too. On February 5, 2019, the Senate approved a bill countering the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) campaign leveled against Israel. In a 77-23 vote, the Republican-controlled Senate passed legislation that would allow state and local governments to bar contractors from advocating for sanctions and boycott of Israel. The bill, also authorized assistance and weapons transfers to Israel as well as a resolution opposing President Trump’s promise to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding, given the lack of precedence for the aforementioned policies towards Israel, President Trump is what many might call symbolically, the first Jewish President of the United States.