WASHINGTON — On January 20, 2017, the next US president will be sworn into office in front of the United States Capitol. He or she will take an oath, address the nation, and then become the most powerful person on earth, the leader of the world’s only superpower.
Since FBI Director James Comey changed the presidential race by announcing to Congress — 11 days before the election — that his bureau would investigate emails possibly related to the private server Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton used while she was secretary of state, the possibility has increased that this person could be the GOP’s Donald Trump.
While Clinton maintains a lead in most polls, and benefits from having an easier path to the needed 270 delegates in the Electoral College, the outcome of this election is anything but certain. If there is one recommendation that’s remained relevant since Trump descended an escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy in June 2015, it’s to “expect the unexpected.”
So what can be expected if Trump becomes America’s next president, the next person responsible for conducting US foreign policy and commanding its armed forces, the next person the Jewish state will rely on for central aspects of its security, and thus, potentially, its existence?
According to several of his top aides and advisers, who spoke with The Times of Israel in recent weeks about the candidate’s Middle East agenda if he wins, Trump plans to commit strongly to Israel’s defense and embrace initiatives that could make the well-being of the Jewish state an issue of central focus to his administration, despite some isolationist echoes in his rhetoric.
Those initiatives, according to many close to him, will likely include positions that break from many long-held US stances on Israel, including not viewing the two-state solution as the key to ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“A two-state solution is not a priority,” his top adviser said.
One problem in assessing the initiatives described by his advisers, however, is that Trump’s campaign statements have featured inconsistencies. There may be a gulf between what he and those around him say he’ll do today and what he ends up doing tomorrow. “He’s said all sorts of things, so it’s hard to know what he would actually do,” said Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator who has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations, in an interview.
In the same address at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, for instance, Trump said he would both “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran” and “enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable,” leaving uncertainty over how he would really handle the Iranian challenge.
One thing that is certain, however, said Benjamin Wittes, an expert on presidential authority and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is that Trump would have considerable freedom to do what he wants relating to Israel and Iran, whereas on domestic matters he would have to confront a more stringent set of checks and balances.
“The basic rule of thumb is that the president has extremely wide power in the foreign policy arena,” Wittes said. “By and large, there is no dispute that the president’s powers when it comes to foreign policy are immense and the constraints on his behavior are less than they are in virtually any other area of American life.”
Overhauling America’s healthcare system, as Trump has said he wants to do, would require the cooperation of Congress. But when it comes to the vast majority of actions he could take on Israel and the region, there is no legislative body or judicial branch or federal agency within the national political system to deter him.
Managing US-Israel relations
When it comes to the US-Israel alliance, many in Trump’s inner circle insist he wants to warm relations after eight tempestuous years under President Barack Obama. “He’s going to be a great friend of Israel,” said retired physician and former presidential candidate Ben Carson. “The long winter will be over.”
Carson, who for nearly 20 years was director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, was Trump’s rival during the primary. A week after Carson withdrew his candidacy, in March 2016, he endorsed the real estate magnate, saying Trump was “the voice of the people to be heard.”
In an interview last week, Carson said that Trump “recognizes the importance of the Judeo-Christian foundation of this country and the strong ties that we have with Israel.”
He emphasized that the GOP nominee would “do everything he can” to prevent Iran from going nuclear, stabilize the region and maintain a relationship of trust between the two countries and its leaders.
Most of what Trump himself has said is not at odds with Carson’s description of the candidate’s attitude and approach toward managing the bilateral ties. But as on almost everything else in the campaign, Trump has his discrepancies when it comes to Israel.
Not only did he anger much of the pro-Israel community by vowing in February to be “sort of a neutral guy” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said a month later that he’d make Israel pay for defense aid, along with other allies like South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia. “There are many countries that can pay, and they can pay big-league,” Trump said during a press conference. He later walked that back.
‘The next president can do what he want with [the defense aid deal]. He can take it into the bathroom and wipe his ass with it if he feels like it’
But for a presidential hopeful who has shattered countless expectations, it’s fair to wonder what other norms might be discarded if he were president, including the US’s longstanding “unshakable bond” with Israel and commitments that are in place between the two nations and others.
In the past, after all, Trump has suggested he might not honor America’s Article Five duty under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to defend any of the 28 members who are attacked. “If they fulfill their obligations to us,” he said.
If Trump — who has shown himself susceptible to being provoked — were to become disgruntled with Israel, it would be within his power to disrupt existing agreements, not the least being the new $38 billion 10-year memorandum of understanding forged between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the largest US military aid package ever. There is nothing codified in US law binding him to it.
“The MOU is an Executive Branch agreement with Israel. That’s all it is,” said Wittes. “The next president can do what he wants. He can take it into the bathroom and wipe his ass with it if he feels like it.”
According to one of Trump’s top Israel advisers, David Friedman, a lawyer who specializes in bankruptcy, the candidate not only supports the MOU but is willing to increase aid levels, if necessary. “If more money was needed, he would be very receptive to hearing from the Israelis,” Friedman said.
Friedman was one of two of Trump’s Israel advisers to release a 16-point position paper last week that pledged strengthening US assistance and detailed a number of promises that US presidential candidates typically make, such as vowing to reject measures critical of Israel at the United Nations.
While the document doesn’t carry Trump’s stamp of approval, the advisers said it was mostly based on the candidate’s past positions.
The Jerusalem embassy
There is one promise in that document that previous candidates have made but none has ever followed through on: moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Kusher, who converted to Judaism in 2006, recently made the same point, telling Florida voters last week her father would “100 percent” move the embassy.
Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner has been a close adviser to Trump on a myriad of campaign matters, including the selection of a running mate, for which The New York Times has described him as Trump’s “de facto campaign manager.” He also reportedly drafted Trump’s speech at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference.
One of Trump’s biggest congressional supporters and biggest confidants on foreign policy and national security, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, confirmed to The Times of Israel that Trump was serious about initiating the embassy move. “He’s very supportive of Jerusalem as capital, and I think he may very well see that as an appropriate step,” said Sessions, the first sitting senator to endorse Trump, in an interview. “Ivanka and his team’s statements would reflect his views in that regard.”
Trump said in his AIPAC speech, and to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in March 2016, that he would move the embassy, something that is likely to please Netanyahu.
When the two met in Manhattan this September while Netanyahu was in town for the UN General Assembly, the matter reportedly came up in their discussions. Trump’s campaign put out a press release saying the candidate told the prime minister that, if elected, he would “recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel.”
That position would reverse years of US policy, which refuses to recognize Israel’s de facto annexation of East Jerusalem and regards the city’s status as an unresolved matter that should be determined through negotiations between the parties.
‘The fact is every presidential candidate who said they would [recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital], didn’t do it’
Some longtime diplomats take Trump’s promise with a grain of salt. “The fact is every presidential candidate who said they would do it, didn’t do it,” said Dennis Ross. “So they obviously decided when they were in office that they preferred, on that issue, not to go ahead and take that step.”
The debate over recognizing Jerusalem has been a taxing issue in US-Israel relations for decades, as both Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their capital city.
In 1995, then speaker of the House Newt Gingrich pushed through Congress the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which sought to relocate the US embassy in Israel. But presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama have all used their executive authority to prevent that from happening outside the contours of a final status agreement.
If the next president were to break with that tradition, it not only would have a deleterious impact on the United States’ mediating role in the conflict, but could also escalate volatility in the region, according to Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former special assistant to president George H.W. Bush.
“To do so would obviously complicate the US’s ability to work with the Palestinians, it would raise issues with any number of Arab governments, and it would make the Israeli-Palestinian and the US-Israel issue central at a time when that ought not to be the principal focus of what we’re doing the Middle East,” he said.
‘I just don’t understand why we would want to create a distracting problem for ourselves [by relocating the embassy] when there’s more than enough problems we cannot avoid’
Instead, Haass argued, the next president should concentrate primarily on Iran’s nuclear program and other activities, the unraveling of Arab states, and what to do about the Kurds and the Islamic State terror group. “I just don’t understand why we would want to create a distracting problem for ourselves when there’s more than enough problems we cannot avoid,” he said.
In the summer of 2015, shortly after he became a candidate, Trump held a private briefing with Haass, who heads a nonpartisan organization that prohibits him from making endorsements. Trump had previously praised Haass during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
“I respect Richard Haass, who’s on your show a lot,” he said to hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. “And I like him a lot. I have a few people that I really like and respect.”
The Israel-Palestinian conflict
Throughout his bid for the White House, Trump has said he would “give it one hell of a shot” to try and broker an elusive peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, even as the GOP’s platform took the step of avoiding support for a two-state solution.
Whether he would decide to make this objective a priority would be of significant consequence, according to Haass, who thinks the next president should not make this issue central to US policy in the region.
“Even if you spent all your time on it, you wouldn’t solve it,” he said. “This is not an issue that is ripe for a resolution. It doesn’t mean you wash your hands of it. You obviously want to put into place certain rules of the road and understandings, so that a bad situation doesn’t get worse.”
‘A two-state solution is not a priority. I don’t think he is wed to any particularly outcome’
Trump’s advisers said he has’t yet decided exactly how he’d go about handling the conflict, but would be open to new ideas, including embracing avenues outside the two-state framework.
“He’s going to listen to everybody and listen to all the solutions,” Carson said, “because the Bible says, ‘In the multitude of counselors, there is safety.'”
Friedman stated that, in his discussions with Trump, “a two-state solution is not a priority. I don’t think he is wed to any particularly outcome. A two-state solution is a way, but it’s not the only way.”
Trump would engage in dialogue with Israel’s leadership about the kind of US action that would be most conducive to peace, said Sessions, who stressed that the businessman would take “a realist approach” to the conflict and would not “be seduced by promises that aren’t likely to be fulfilled.”
Those close to Trump said he thinks any resolution could come only from both parties having the desire to negotiate and reach an agreement. But how Trump would play the role of mediator, if that were the case, is unclear.
While he’s tried to indicate a walk-back on his pledge of neutrality, he has not explicitly rescinded this posture. On his website, there’s a video in which he says, “I want to remain as neutral as possible because, if you’re not somewhat neutral, the other side is never going to do it.”
Friedman argued that Trump’s language has been misunderstood. “What he was really referring to was trying to sponsor negotiations that would take place without preconditions,” he said. “That was what he viewed as neutrality, and that’s frankly been the view of the Israeli government for some time.”
“This was something Hillary Clinton made much ado about, but it was really much ado about nothing, because to be neutral in the negotiations would be a significant improvement over where the Obama-Clinton administration has been in the past,” Friedman added.
Early on in Obama’s presidency, he chastised Israel for settlement activity and called for a moratorium on West Bank construction.
“When they approached Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, their demand was that, first of all, Israel should immediately freeze all settlement construction, unilaterally, with nothing in return,” Friedman said. “So that’s an example of the absence of neutrality, but it’s in favor of the Palestinians against the Israelis.”
Trump has not publicly stated a position on settlements or what kind of a stance he would take on the enterprise. The most common view among Washington’s foreign policy community is that, to keep the two-state option alive and ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, the US should try to limit settlement activity to the principal blocs that Israel is expected to retain under any permanent accord.
Friedman said Trump would not “dictate to Israel where it can and cannot build.”
The Iran nuclear deal
If there is one issue deeply resonant for Israel on which Trump has remained consistent, it has been his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Where he hasn’t been consistent, however, is how he would treat the deal as commander-in-chief.
In the past, he said he would both “dismantle” the deal and vigorously “enforce it.” According to those counseling him, he has now come to the realization that he would need to operate inside the terms of the landmark pact, but he’s not abandoning the possibility of walking away from it.
“He thinks that Iran, where they are now, is a lot more powerful than they were before as a result of this agreement,” Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso told The Times of Israel last week. “He thinks that they are on a path to a nuclear weapon, and that, with this arrangement, the world is less secure and less stable than it was beforehand.”
Barrasso was chairman of the Republican Party’s platform committee this summer, which states flatly that a Republican president “will not be bound” by the deal and vows to “retain all options” in dealing with Iran.
The prospect of the United States withdrawing from the agreement is a source of concern to a number of experts and ex-diplomats who have worked closely on this issue. If he were to walk away, he’d put the US “in a position where he’s isolating us and not the Iranians,” said Ross. “The problem he faces is that it isn’t a bilateral agreement. It is a multi-lateral agreement. This was a P5+1 negotiation, and the other five are not going to tear it up.”
Unless the Iranians were grossly violating the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is formally known, and the US discontinued its commitments, it would “embolden the Iranians to simply abscond from their own requirements and, in all likelihood, proceed with rebuilding their nuclear activities without the expectation that the Europeans would be willing to apply penalties, since it was the US that was the first country to renege,” argued Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at Brookings and an expert on Iran.
“It is really a complex issue for any American president to navigate,” she added. “It’s hard to imagine, based on the way Trump has handled his campaign, that he would be particularly adept at doing so.”
While members of his team suggest Trump does not plan to “rip up” the deal or try to “renegotiate” it, as he once said he would, they don’t rule the possibility out.
“Mr. Trump is very dubious about the agreement, has not declared he will attempt to nullify it the day he comes to office, but he intends to monitor, very, very closely,” Sessions insisted. “You know, you become president and have more access to classified intelligence and top advice. I don’t think he’s indicated he would reject outright the [agreement] early on in his administration. I don’t think that’s been eliminated as a possibility, but he has indicated that he would monitor it intensely.”
In his conversations with Trump, Friedman recalled the former reality television star implying he thought “dismantling it would be very counterintuitive right now.”
‘We’ve given Iran everything they want and now all that’s left of the deal is that Iran owes us nine years of peace’
“We’ve given Iran everything they want and now all that’s left of the deal is that Iran owes us nine years of peace,” Friedman said. “So having parted with everything that we’ve already parted with, it’s almost senseless to not at least take advantage of this nine-year window, assuming Iran actually complies.”
One of Trump’s campaign strategies is to tap into the unpopularity of the accord and pin responsibility for it on Clinton, who worked on creating the conditions for negotiations to take place during her tenure at the State Department.
“You started the Iran deal, that’s another beauty, they were about to fall,” Trump said to Clinton during the first debate, alluding to the pressure on the Tehran regime caused by US-imposed oil and financial sanctions. “They were choking on the sanctions and now they’re probably going to be a major power.”
“This is one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history,” he added. “I met with Bibi Netanyahu the other day. Believe me, he is not a happy camper.”
Trump’s rhetoric and lack of specifics for how he’d treat the Iranian nuclear threat has earned him the scorn of Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and lead negotiator of the deal. “You know, the Iran deal is not perfect,” she said. “No deal is perfect, but it has stopped Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and projecting immense power into the region and deterring actions to ensure Israel’s security.”
Sherman, who is now one of Clinton’s top foreign policy advisers, thinks one of the dangers posed by the Republican nominee is that he lacks an understanding of the complexity of the problem posed by Iran and the choices truly available in confronting it.
“Donald Trump has not a clue what the options are or how he’d go about it,” Sherman said. “The only thing he’s told people is that he’s going to make it all better. He’s never told anyone how, because he really doesn’t know how.”
Trump, the man
Since launching his campaign, Donald Trump has confounded the world. His improbable political rise will surely be studied for years to come, with analysts trying to pinpoint how he could captivate such a wide the portion of the American electorate. If his appeal comes from anywhere, it comes less from his policies than his personality.
Hillary Clinton — like most other Trump critics — constantly assails his “temperament” and “fitness” to be president. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” she often says on the campaign trail.
When it comes to Israel specifically, Clinton directs her censure most explicitly at his reliability, or lack thereof. “We need steady hands,” she told a crowd of roughly 18,000 at this year’s AIPAC confab, “not a president who says he’s neutral on Monday, pro-Israel on Tuesday, and who knows what on Wednesday, because everything’s negotiable.”
To be sure, presidents often transform their approach to certain issues over the years, and there is always gap between candidate and president, according to Haass. “Shockingly, people running for president say things that they think increase the odds they will be elected,” he said dryly. “There’s always a fundamental difference between campaigning and governing.”
“By and large, there’s always a lot of evolution. People change while they’re in the Oval Office,” he added. “There’s suddenly new threats or opportunities to deal with. A lot depends upon the team they surround themselves with.”
Successful campaigns, however, often reflect the ensuing presidency. Michael Krukones, a professor at Bellarmine College, wrote a book, Promises and Performance, that studied every president from Woodrow Wilson to Jimmy Carter and found they fulfilled nearly 73% of their promises. According to Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checker, Obama has kept 45% of his promises and a compromised version of 26% of them — totaling 71%.
The complicating factor for a president Trump on Israel is that he’s made so many conflicting promises.
‘Everywhere I go in the world, people say, “What are you all thinking?”‘
“We have no idea what he really believes, because he has no track record. He’s totally inconsistent. Can you imagine if someone gets under his skin and he tweets at 3 o’clock in the morning and all the sudden we find ourselves on the way to a nuclear war?” asked Sherman. “Everywhere I go in the world, people say, ‘What are you all thinking?’ It is really, really terrifying to think of his hand being on those codes.”
That image is often put forth by the Clinton camp, and is much studied by others trying to assess how Trump might act if he were to attain the staggering powers of the nation’s highest office. “This is one of the reasons that the mental stability of presidents is generally considered to be a virtue,” Wittes said.
When it comes to the relationship between the US and Israel, it is not obvious what might unfold if America’s 45th president is Donald Trump. According to those close to him, the alliance would be fortified by his vision for asserting US power and working with the Israelis to combat global terror.
“I think you will see a strengthened military, a policy of peace through strength, and that will vigorously and aggressively defeat those who threaten the United States and its important interests,” Sessions said. “The result of that approach to foreign policy will enhance the relationship of Israel and the United States. So I think the US-Israel relationship will be much more honest, much more direct, and much stronger under a Trump administration.”
Others are less than convinced. Said Amb. Richard Schifter, a Holocaust survivor who served as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in the Reagan and Bush administrations: “His presidency would be a perilous situation for Israel, because Israel would not be able to rely on what he may or may not do. And Israel, like so much of the world, relies, to a great extent, on the United States.”