2018, the year Donald Trump upended the US-Israel relationship
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2018, the year Donald Trump upended the US-Israel relationship

Twelve months ago, the US embassy was in Tel Aviv, the Iran deal was humming along, Palestinians were enjoying aid, and a peace plan was just a twinkle in Jared Kushner’s eye

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 26, 2018 in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)
US President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 26, 2018 in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump ran for the presidency as a disrupter. When it comes to his managing of the US-Israel relationship, he has been precisely that.

Throughout 2018, Trump made a series of decisions that have had vast implications for Israel’s future — for its conflict with the Palestinians, and for its efforts to thwart Iran’s quest to obtain a nuclear weapon and spread its influence throughout the region.

And, throughout it all, he has put Israel in the center of the news, and made it a focal point of his administration.

In typical Trumpian fashion, the president made the last year one of upheaval and controversy. Here are the five ways that he upended US-Israel relations in 2018.

Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem

In May, Trump followed through on his commitment to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move was warmly praised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (he compared Trump to King Cyrus) and widely castigated by the Palestinians and much of the international community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the new embassy amounted to a “new settlement,” as he refused to meet with any Trump officials, arguing that, by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they had forfeited their right to act as honest mediators in the conflict.

“With this step, the US administration has cancelled its role in the peace process and has insulted the world, the Palestinian people and the Arab and the Islamic nation and it has created incitement and instability,” said PA spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeineh at the time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd-L) Guatemala President Jimmy Morales (C) and Guatemalan Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel (2R) at the official opening of the Guatemalan embassy in Jerusalem on May 16, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

While the move suspended the US-Palestinian relationship, it was seen in Israel as the crown jewel of a close bond forged between Trump and Netanyahu. The limits of that bond, however, were later tested by Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria (see below), when the Israeli leader was accused of selling out Israel’s security interests.

The new embassy hasn’t only shifted US-Israel ties, but has also affected Israel’s relationship with other countries. Israel has touted the embassy relocation as the first of many, with a minister even planning a diplomatic compound in the capital for foreign missions.

A number of countries have since made moves toward bringing their embassies to Jerusalem, especially Latin American nations. According to analysts, at least some of this is borne out of a desire to cozy up to Trump, but it’s also meant a possible flourishing of ties between Israel and Central and South America. Case in point: Netanyahu’s current visit to Brazil.

Withdrawing the US from the Iran deal

The relationship between Netanyahu and Barack Obama hit rock bottom when the US and five other world powers forged a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. During the 2016 campaign, Trump both promised to scrap the deal and enforce it vigorously. In May, he finally did what Netanyahu had long wanted: he pulled the United States out of the landmark pact.

US President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 8, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)

Iran, to date, has vowed to remain a party to the deal, as have its other signatories — the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China. The Trump administration said it would seek to forge another agreement with the Islamic Republic that addressed the president’s core complaints, including the deal’s sunset provisions, its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile development and testing, and its not allowing full and immediate access to all Iran’s military and other suspect sites.

As of now, the Trump White House does not appear on the brink of reaching a new accord.

Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal removed what had been a major point of contention between Israel and the US, while also rendering Israel arguably a more partisan issue in Washington than ever.

Cutting US aid to the Palestinians

In September, Trump went on a crusade against the Palestinian Authority. As the Palestinians continued to refuse to meet with his team tasked with seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Trump began cutting vast sums of US aid to Palestinian organizations and UN groups that support Palestinians.

Palestinian employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) take part in a sit in, in front of the agency’s headquarters in Gaza City on October 2, 2018, to protest against job cuts announced by the UNRWA. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

He withdrew US funds from UNRWA,  the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, the Palestinian Authority, the East Jerusalem hospital network, and Israeli-Palestinian co-existence programs. This pressure campaign came as the White House was planning to release its highly anticipated peace plan.

While some Israeli officials privately warned the moves would only exacerbate tensions, Israeli government figures publicly praised the move. Israel, which long argued that UNRWA was perpetuating the Palestinians’ refugee issue (by awarding refugee status to endless generations of descendants) rather than solving it, now had the US on its side.

Trump’s conditioning of Palestinian funding on the Abbas’s PA coming to the table for peace negotiations, while not threatening Israeli military aid, marked a major victory for Netanyahu.

Pulling US troops from Syria

Earlier this month, Trump rattled Jerusalem by announcing that he would pull all US troops from Syria. US soldiers had been leading the coalition against the Islamic State terror group, while also helping thwart Iran from entrenching itself in the battered country.

US forces, accompanied by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, drive their armored vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah, on the border with Turkey, April 28, 2017. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Israel has repeatedly warned in recent years that Iran is seeking to establish a military presence in Syria, where it is fighting alongside Russia and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Israeli officials warn that America’s absence would open the door for Tehran to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.

US President Donald Trump speaks at a hanger rally at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on December 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Trump, however, dismissed that concern last week during a surprise visit to Iraq. “Well, I don’t see it. I spoke with Bibi,” he said. “I told Bibi. And, you know, we give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they’re doing very well defending themselves, if you take a look … So that’s the way it is.”

The president’s decision to pull troops out is seen as the first significant point of contention between Washington and Jerusalem since Trump took office — Netanyahu reportedly pleaded with him to rethink — and has served to bolster the contention that he views the relationship as transactional.

Trump has several times hinted at a “price” Israel will have to pay for him moving the embassy. While he was likely referring to negotiations with the Palestinians, his mention of the embassy when asked about the decision to remove troops from Syria suggests it could be that Israel’s pays for the move in more ways than one.

Teasing the release of his peace plan

Throughout 2018, Trump’s peace team — led by his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and special envoy Jason Greenblatt — has signaled that the publication of its proposal was imminent. There has been no definitive indication of what the plan will entail; although Trump once said he preferred a two-state outcome.

In recent months, officials have said the plan is “completed” but that it would be released “when the time was right,” making it the biggest elephant in a room full of them. In 2018, finding the right time evidently eluded the Americans.

Trump himself vowed during the UN General Assembly in September that it would be unveiled by January. It now seems unlikely that the White House will release the plan with Israel heading into an election this spring, and many see a summer rollout as the earliest likely window.

With the plan gathering dust, it remains one big question mark, with the potential, Trump-style, to one day further disrupt not only the US-Israel relationship, but also the broader Middle East.

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