This has been a strange month for Israel. Last week, the country held long delayed and anticipated elections for the 120 seats that constitute the Knesset or Israeli parliament. For the past four election cycles, Benjamin Netanyahu has served as Prime Minister and leader of the Likud party. However, amid recent corruption allegations against Netanyahu and his wife, questions concerning the incumbent’s ability to lead have come to the forefront of the electoral debate.
Meanwhile, just three weeks prior to Tuesday’s election, President Trump broke with five decades of U.S. foreign policy by tweeting that “it is time for the United States to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights” and thus taking a stance on a dispute the US has remained outwardly neutral toward since its onset in 1967. Given Trump’s already strong relationship with the prime minister, this move is an ostensible endorsement for the incumbent. The relationship between the U.S. president and Netanyahu has become no secret in the throws of the Trump era, but this behavior seems uncommonly brash. All this leads one to ask: what is Trump doing in Israel?
Following a similar model to his announcement for the embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump’s Golan Heights tweet came seemingly out of nowhere. After the announcement, Trump staffers reported having discussed the move, but from an external standpoint it was essentially unprompted. There were no incidents in the Golan, in American-Israeli or even American regional relations that would seem to be the cause for such a dramatic policy announcement. The problem here is twofold. The administration has shifted a long-held foreign policy stance with no clear reason for doing so, and in doing this has taken a stance on an embattled foreign candidate during an another otherwise unremarkable election.
The point here is really not which side Trump took nor is it to litigate the legitimacy of any claims in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The point is that Trump has involved himself in the domestic elections of yet another country with seemingly no unique benefit to the United States. Further, haphazardly rewriting U.S. foreign policy toward the Golan to the obvious benefit of Israel’s incumbent in the middle of an election cycle is simply unwise. Of course, the administration would point to rifts in the American-Israeli relationship created by its predecessor and would be correct in doing so, but between the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPA, the aforementioned embassy relocation and Trump’s close relationship with Netanyahu, another substantial policy shift seems at best unnecessary. When Trump came into office, indeed there were large holes to patch with Israel, but in 2019 that hatchet seems to have been reasonably buried with many more to be addressed all around the Middle East.
The U.S. should maintain her old allies in the Middle East and work in earnest to make new ones. The past month has done a whole lot of the first and the opposite of the second. There is simply no need to inject ourselves into a territorial dispute on which we have remained neutral since the Johnson administration. Likewise, it is time the U.S. removes itself from the democratic process in Israel. Trump’s excessive warmth toward Netanyahu is just as inappropriate as Obama’s coolness was… somewhere between the two lies a healthy foreign policy.
Contact Ryan Zoellner at [email protected]