The Sephardic Heritage Museum Explores THE LIFE AND ESCAPE of the JEWS OF SYRIA

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By: Machla Abramovitz

President Trump’s administration has created a new atmosphere for U.S. – Israeli relations, quite different from what we saw during the Obama administration. During Obama’s eight years in office, his administration promoted much acrimony between the U.S. and Israel. The final slap at Israel was taken at the end of Obama’s term last December, when he helped to push forward UN Security Council Resolution 2334. That resolution condemned Israeli settlements.

In a turnabout in US policy, on Oct. 13th of this year President Trump declined to certify Iran’s technical compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a major concern of Israel’s. After careful review, the president concluded thatIran was no longer in compliance with the measures laid out in a provision of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). The provision in question asks whether the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran is in America’s national-security interest. The president decided that it was not. Rather than pull out of the deal as he promised to do throughout his campaign, Trump asked Congress to consider amending the INARA legislation that oversees the deal to include “trigger points,” thereby giving Congress a 60-day window to quickly reimpose sanctions without debate or Congressional action, should Iran cross the red lines set by Congress.

The day before, the State Department announced its withdrawal from UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) by the end of 2018, citing among its reasons “continuing anti-Israel bias.” Last May UNESCO passed a shameful resolution declaring Israel’s sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Old City of Jerusalem “null and void.” In July UNESCO brashly designated Hebron’s Old City and the Ma’arat Ha’machpela“Palestinian World Heritage Sites.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley stated, “The purpose of UNESCO is a good one. Unfortunately, its extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment …US taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to congratulate President Trump on both policy decisions. Regarding the JCPOA, Netanyahu called it an “opportunity to fix this bad deal,” which essentially paves the way for an Iranian nuclear arsenal. Netanyahu also called President Trump’s UNESCO decision “courageous and ethical,” and instructed Israel’s Foreign Ministry to prepare Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO as well.

The Gap between Expectations
of Trump and the Actual Reality

Given his strongly pro-Israel campaign rhetoric, expectations were high among Israel’s supporters that President Trump’s Middle East policies would be markedly different from Obama’s. But now, almost ten months into his presidency, some have expressed
some disappointment.

Political scientist Prof. Harold Waller of McGill University, who co-authored together with Dr. Brent E. Sasley the recently released Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society, is one such critic. “With Trump, I expected an end to the overt hostility that was evident when Obama was president. I expected more understanding of Israel’s security situation and how that affected Israel’s approach to peace negotiations. I expected unwavering support for Israel in international bodies like the UN,” Waller stated.

Waller did not expect that Trump would take the same position as previous administrations regarding the intention to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority based on a two-state solution.

Waller stated, “I’m not sure that his son-in-law Jared Kushner is the right person to represent the American side of the negotiations… As well, the State Department needs to have many more political appointees in there who share Trump’s perspective, which is basically very supportive of Israel… Similarly, Trump appointees National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, although not hostile, have not embraced Trump’s enthusiasm for Israel.”

Waller points out that the State Department is notoriously hostile towards Israel. This was especially evident when Trump visited Israel. The State Department did not allow Trump to be accompanied by Israeli government officials, such as the prime minister, when he visited the Kotel. “Granted, no foreign government has recognized the annexation of Eastern Jerusalem,” Waller noted, “but anyone who is followingmatters closely knows that Israel is not going to turn over the Kotel to the Palestinians in any peace negotiation. This was pettiness on the part of the State Department, but it also symbolized its hostility towards Israel, a hostility that hasn’t been transformed by a Trump presidency.”

Positive Developments for Israel
in the International Community

Under Trump’s watch, there have been many positive developments. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley not only articulates but actively promotes international support for Israel. Waller believes that the current session of the General Assembly will likely produce the lowest number of anti-Israel resolutions in a long time. But this, he maintains, is not only due to Haley. Other important players and changing attitudes also have a role. Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon is doing an excellent job; newly-elected UN Secretary-General
António Guterres is more open-minded towards Israel than his predecessors. Plus, the declining hostility towards Israel among some UN members, andIsrael’s gradual acceptance into the UN structure, have contributed to better times for Israel at the UN. Last May, Ambassador Danon was elected vice president of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly. As for UNESCO, it will most likely continue itsanti-Israel activities, only now the US won’t be part of it.

As regards to the Palestinians, last month the Trump administration declared its support for the Taylor Force Act, a bill that would suspend US financial aid to the PA until it stops paying terrorists to murder Jews.
Trump’s administration also shifted away from the previous administration's policy that considered settlements an obstacle to peace, and canceled the distinction between settlement blocs (natural growth) and isolated settlements. Themessages coming out of Washington regarding this issue are mixed, in that many within Trump’s administration strongly oppose the settlements, according to Waller. Taking advantage of Trump’s personal attitude, Israel is slated to build nearly 4,000 new housing units across Samaria and Judah including Chevron, as is Israel’s legitimate right. As well, the US recently established a permanent military air force base for the first time, inside Israel’s Mashabim Air Base. This move, two years in the making, will upgrade Israel’s missile defense program. “The move is highly symbolic, and sends a clear message to potential enemies regarding an attack on Israel,” Waller stated.

Israel’s Syrian Border
and Relations with Russia

Waller is particularly concerned aboutthe situation along Israel’s Syrian border, where Iranian and Russian troops are presently ensconced. Prime Minister Netanyahu came out strongly against the July 7th partial peace agreement between the US, Russia, and Jordan. The agreement was hammered out by the US, and delegates Russia to take responsibility for monitoring the peace in the region. Israel claims that the agreement fails to address Israel’s legitimate concerns regarding Iran’s plans to cement its presence in Syria, including its establishment of naval and air force bases there. Also, no efforts have been made to address Iran’s broader objectives, which include carving out a land route through Syria from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon. This would be accomplished by displacing non-Shiites from their homes and replacing them with Shiite Muslims. Waller contends that the establishment of a Shiite crescent is extremely dangerous, and speaks to the failure of Obama’s foreign policy that allowed this to happen. In addition, Obama and his anti-Israel policy makers looked the other way while Iran supplied Hezbollah with advanced weaponry. Waller is also critical of Obama’s allowing the Russians to insert themselves back into the Middle East, as well.

Fortunately, Israel has been developing relations with Putin and Russia for a number of years. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s Oct. 16th visit to Israel was highly significant: Both Israel and Russia share a common objective, to diffuse the tension along the Syrian/Israeli border.

How Should Israel
Respond to President Trump?

How should Israel respond to President Trump? Waller suggests, “They [the Israelis] should be encouraging him because he’s the best friend they’ve had in the White House in a long time, and probably the best friend they will have for a long time in the future. Israel can take advantage of the president’s attitude towards it by building facts on the ground, which they are now doing. Absent a peace agreement, which I don’t think will happen despite Trump’s
deal-making prowess, Israelis going to push ahead and continue acting unilaterally in its best interest.”