BY JONATHAN SCHANZER, CONTRIBUTOR
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is counting the days until Barack Obama leaves office. So are many supporters of Israel here in the United States, including members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
It’s not just last week’s abstention on an anti-Israel measure at the United Nations Security Council. Nor was it the long-winded speech about Israeli settlements by President Obama’s secretary of State, John Kerry, earlier this week.
It’s the sum total of Obama’s harmful Middle East policies that have imperiled Israel: a deeply-flawed Iran deal that gifted Iran $150 billion in sanctions relief; the failure to stabilize the war in Syria, which has put Hezbollah, ISIS and other bad actors on Israel’s northern border; and the mishandling of the Arab Spring, which has brought chronic instability throughout Israel’s already-nasty neighborhood.
Will the next administration fix all of that? It’s a tall order.
The Iran deal can certainly be undone. ISIS can be defeated. Iran and Hezbollah can be driven from Syria. And some of the region’s nasty internecine conflicts can be mediated. The problem is that this can’t all be accomplished at once. Untangling Obama’s mess will require prioritization, patience and, above all, thoughtful policies.
But other things can be fixed more quickly. On Jan. 20, the relationship between the new president and Israel’s prime minister seems set to improve immeasurably. Based on statements from both leaders, the “special relationship” will be special again. Donald Trump appears poised to rhetorically defend Israel against its many enemies and to do nothing to prevent Israel from defending itself. He also appears ready to veto any new anti-Israel measures at the U.N. Security Council.
Last week’s U.N. vote is not likely to be overturned, however. This was almost certainly part of Obama’s calculus. Obama understood full well that the measure would pave the way for the delegitimization of Israel by some countries, and even put wind in the sails of the propaganda and economic warfare campaign against Israel known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.
True, the outgoing president signed a generous Memorandum of Understanding in September granting $3.8 billion per year in U.S. aid to Israel for a decade. But his eleventh-hour move at the U.N. now promises to subtract from this assistance.
Since the U.N. vote, pro-Israel lawmakers and policy wonks have been considering moves that the new administration might make to mitigate the damage and perhaps even try to inoculate Israel in the future.
Some, notably Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), have called for steep cuts in U.S. funding to the U.N. Such a move would put the U.N. on notice for its pathological fixation on Israel, but also its irredeemable ineffectuality and incalculable corruption.
There are other ways of sending a tough message short of a full funding cut. This could include working to abolish the U.N. Human Rights Council, through which the worst dictatorships and nastiest regimes regularly accuse Israel of alleged crimes, but stand by uselessly while Bashar Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and Russia have carried out unspeakable atrocities in Syria.
Another step could be to either cut funding to or demand the reform of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which is a U.N. body dedicated entirely to supporting the Palestinian refugee population. UNRWA recognizes some 6.5 million Palestinians as refugees today.
Except this population is overwhelmingly made up of the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original refugee populations from the 1948 and 1967 wars. Indeed, the original refugee population has dwindled over the years to an estimated 30,000-50,000. In other words, UNRWA has been perpetuating the Palestinian-Israel conflict through heredity, and by not insisting that this population be resettled, as the UN has done with every single other refugee population.
Other legislators, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinin (R-Fla.), have repeatedly called for cuts in U.S. assistance to the Palestinian Authority. These calls will almost certainly increase as Congress seeks to reassure Israel in the wake of Obama’s lame-duck maneuvers. Legislators in the past have pointed to incitement, the paying of salaries to convicted terrorists in Israeli prisons, and corruption as justification. They will now point to the Palestinian Authority’s complicity in the recent U.N. vote.
Others have talked about shutting down or downgrading the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) diplomatic representation here in the United States. It’s certainly fair to ask why the United States continues to recognize the PLO as the sole Palestinian representative for diplomatic negotiations when it has refused to negotiate with Israel for years.
But none of this would necessarily protect Israel from the boycotts and assaults on its legitimacy that may stem from the U.N. vote. That’s why some within the incoming administration are reportedly mulling reprisals for European nations that wage economic warfare against Israel. There is also talk of injecting new funds, leadership and urgency into the bureaucracy to fight politically motivated boycotts against America or any of its allies.
Finally, there is talk of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The move is, of course, enshrined in law, even though Obama and his predecessors have wielded their waiver authorities to block it. Moving the embassy is, by now, a well-known objective of Trump’s incoming ambassador, David Friedman. Should it come to pass, it will be seen as a sign of unequivocal friendship and a full-throated recognition of Israel’s struggle for security and international legitimacy. That is something Israelis haven’t seen for eight years.
Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.