Quarterly Updates for (16 Aug 2016 — 15 Nov 2016)

Military Aid Deal Reached

Following mos. of negotiations, the U.S. and Israel signed a major military aid agreement this quarter. Negotiators had earlier overcome significant differences and while the contours of the agreement were largely known, detractors of the finalized deal spoke up volubly after the announcement, stepping up pressure on U.S. pres. Obama’s admin. in the final mos. of his term.

The acting head of Israel’s National Security Council, Nagel, and U.S. undersecy. of state for political affairs Thomas A. Shannon signed the new MoU, replacing the current document, at a ceremony in Washington on 9/14. Under the new MoU, the U.S. was to deliver $38 b. in aid to Israel over the course of 10 years, beginning in 2019. The MoU increased annual U.S. disbursements of direct military aid, or foreign military financing (FMF), from a total $3.1 b. to $3.3 b.; set at an annual $500 m. U.S. funding of U.S.-Israeli cooperative missile defense programs; and phased out, in the 2d half of the 10-year period, the unique provision under the current MoU that allows Israel to spend 26.3% of its annual FMF funds in Israel. It was also reported, but unconfirmed, that Israel agreed not to request supplemental appropriations from Congress, as has been the trend in recent years.

While some Israeli and U.S. politicians criticized the deal, both Israeli PM Netanyahu and Obama proudly touted it as a landmark accomplishment. Representing the Israeli PM Nagel said (9/14), “At no stage of the negotiations was there a higher [U.S.] offer on the table than the 1 we ultimately received.” He was preemptively countering complaints from Netanyahu’s opponents, who decried the PM for antagonizing the Obama admin. over the P5+1’s (U.S., France, China, Russia, UK, and Germany) nuclear deal with Iran and who had also cited the frosty Obama-Netanyahu relationship as the reason that Israel received less military aid than it wanted. Obama stated (9/14) for his part that the deal made a “significant contribution to Israel’s security in what remains a dangerous neighborhood,” and reiterated that the U.S. was “Israel’s greatest friend and partner.” Israel’s friends in Congress were unhappy with the MoU. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who led a campaign to pressure Obama into improving the U.S. offer during the talks, voiced a litany of complaints on 9/16, claiming that the provision annulling Israel’s right to lobby Congress was “absurd” and criticizing Netanyahu for signing a deal too early. “Here is what I would tell Bibi,” he said. “When mbrs. of Congress come to Israel, you do a great job talking about the State of Israel’s needs and threats. Well, don’t tell us about all those needs and threats. When we try to help you, you pull the rug from under us. I think that is bad for Israel.” Graham, along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), John McCain (R-AZ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Ted Cruz (R-TX), then introduced (9/20) a bill giving Israel $1.5 b. in supplemental military aid. Graham stated (9/20) that he intended to introduce more legislation overturning parts of the new MoU.

Rumors of a Peace Push

In the speech celebrating the new military aid deal, Obama said (9/14), “It is because of this same commitment to Israel and its long-term security that we will also continue to press for a 2-state solution to the longstanding IsraeliPalestinian conflict, despite the deeply troubling trends on the ground that undermine this goal.” His comments, in tandem with the U.S. State Dept.’s increasingly severe condemnations of Israeli settlement growth, strengthened speculation that Obama was considering a major new peace initiative during his remaining mos. in office. With a large military aid pledge firmly in place, Obama appeared to have enough political capital to shield his legacy from opponents in Congress and inside the Israel lobby. Although such rumors never panned out, leaks and unconfirmed reports throughout the quarter suggested that the Obama admin. might, in fact, be preparing a number of options for the outgoing pres. during the so-called lame-duck period.

A few days after the military aid deal was announced, U.S. secy. of state Kerry indicated that the admin.’s frustration with Israel was on the rise. During a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Comm. (AHLC) on 9/19 (see “Donors” below), Kerry repeatedly warned about the declining viability of a 2-state solution, according to Western diplomats in attendance. The senior U.S. diplomat, who was also described (9/25) as appearing extremely agitated, laid most of the blame for the current impasse on ever-growing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. Kerry also complained that numerous confidence-building steps pledged by both sides had gone unfulfilled: “I was told the Allenby Bridge [between the West Bank and Jordan] would open 24/7. It never did. I was told that the 3G [West Bank cellular service] agreement signed nearly a year ago would take place within months. It still is not fully implemented.” And finally, he alluded to a possible step the Obama admin. might take, saying, “We need to fundamentally change the dynamic by resuming the transition to greater Palestinian civil authority in Area C.”

Before news of Kerry’s comments broke on 9/25, opposition to a potential U.S. peace push had already ramped up days before Netanyahu’s scheduled meeting with Obama in New York on 9/21, on the occasion of the UNGA. Addressing the UNGA on 9/20, Obama had said, “Surely, Israelis and Palestinians will be better off if Palestinians reject incitement and recognize the legitimacy of Israel but Israel recognizes that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land.” On the same day, 88 U.S. senators signed on to a letter backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Comm. (AIPAC) and J Street calling on Obama to oppose any “one-sided” UNSC res. on the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. In the shadow of Obama’s comments and the anti-UNSC letter, Netanyahu and Obama discussed (9/21) relatively anodyne subjects. Instead of touching on Obama’s rumored peace effort, Netanyahu said the U.S. pres. would always be welcome in Israel, and Obama told him, “We’ll set up a tee time.”

Behind the scenes of the meeting, however, Obama admin. officials were carefully setting expectations on the possibility of a renewed U.S. effort. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said, “Obama’s calculations . . . revolve around the question ‘Can I make a positive change by engaging on the Israeli-Palestinian issue?’” Meanwhile, U.S. amb. to Israel Dan Shapiro confirmed (9/21) that Obama was weighing the possibility of a renewed push: “The question Pres. Obama is asking himself is: Can the U.S. contribute to the effort to preserve the objective of 2 states for 2 peoples? . . . This could be a statement we make or a resolution or an initiative at the UN . . . which contributes to an effort to be continued by the next admin.”

As the Obama admin. deliberated in private, there were further leaks of possible options being considered and the Israeli govt. began mounting a defense in public. On 9/24, and in a phone call with Kerry on 10/8, Netanyahu said he expected Obama to refrain from supporting a Palestinian-backed UNSC res. Kerry told the Israeli PM (10/8) that the pres. had not yet decided, but a week later, a senior U.S. diplomat in Tel Aviv clarified (10/16) that he was reviewing a handful of specific options. The diplomat said Obama was going to wait until after the presidential election on 11/8 to make any announcement, but indicated that he was weighing support for a UNSC res. condemning Israel’s settlements; he added that Obama was considering a major speech outlining the framework for a peace deal Kerry had devised during the last round of talks in early 2014 (see JPS 43 [4]) or calling for an enhanced regional approach linking the PalestinianIsraeli conflict with the struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the civil war in Syria. Although the diplomat said that the speech on regional matters was the frontrunner, no decision had yet been made.

After the surprising results of the U.S. presidential election 3 weeks later, the Obama admin.’s deliberations no longer received much scrutiny. As pres.-elect Donald Trump shared very few of Obama’s positions on the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, attention focused instead on the major changes Trump would make to U.S. policy in the region.

Donald Trump, 45th President

Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election on 11/8, defeating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College, although Clinton won the popular vote with at least 2.5 million more votes than her opponent. Trump was set to be sworn in as the 45th pres. of the U.S. on 1/20/2017. The Republicans also maintained their majority in the Senate, holding onto 51 seats, and retained 238 in the House. Because Trump and his new congressional allies share few of the Obama admin.’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the region in general, their victory signaled a potentially broad shift in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Despite the inconsistencies of the Trump campaign, the candidate and his advisors did attempt to solidify his reputation as an unflinching supporter of Israel, and particularly of the Netanyahu govt.’s policies as the election approached. Two mos. before the vote, the Trump campaign opened (9/5) an office in Karnei Shomron, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank. The dir. of campaign operations at the office, Tzvika Brot, said (9/5) that it was not meant to be a statement of policy in its own right, but that the goal was to “get [Israel’s] U.S. citizens interested in voting in the U.S. election to register before it’s too late.” However, Mark Zell, the cochair of Republicans Overseas Israel, said (9/5), “While Tzvika said this is not a political statement as such, that’s not entirely true. I worked along with reps. of the Trump campaign to get passed a historic amendment to the Republican Party platform, and this amendment specifically omitted any reference to Israel as an occupier and coincided with Trump’s own statements that building homes, synagogues, and schools for Arabs and Jews in Judea and Samaria was an issue for the Israeli govt. and people to decide—not something that America should be dictating to Israel” (see JPS 46 [1] for more on the Republican platform).

Later in 9/2016, Netanyahu met with both Trump and Clinton while he was in New York for the UNGA. An Israeli source said (9/23) that the meetings resulted from a phone call between the PM’s advisors and Trump’s campaign staff, and that Netanyahu only set up a meeting with Clinton to maintain balance. (He was reported wary of intervening in U.S. politics after his 2015 battle over the Iran deal and his vocal support for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012.)

In his meeting with Netanyahu, Trump stated that he would “accept the long-standing congressional mandate to recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel,” according to a campaign press release. Since Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, both Republican and Democratic presidents have exercised their right to waive, every 6 mos., the congressionally mandated relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. Clinton reaffirmed her “unwavering commitment” to Israel and pledged to oppose “any attempt by outside parties to impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict . . . including the UN,” according to her campaign. Although Trump’s stance was clearly more aligned with his own, Netanyahu summed up (9/26) the meetings by stating, “No matter what happens [on 11/8], the friendship between Israel and the U.S. will not only continue but will grow stronger.”

Trump’s inconsistent positions on Israel received increased scrutiny after the election. By the end of the quarter, however, the pres.- elect had only just begun assembling his cabinet and had not made any definitive statements on the subject.

A document published (11/2) a week before the election, by the cochairs of the Israel Advisory Comm. to Donald J. Trump, Jason Dov Greenblatt and David Friedman, received considerable attention. Although Trump himself did not lay out the document’s positions, Greenblatt and Friedman said each point had been “discussed with Mr. Trump and the Trump campaign” or “stated, in 1 form or another, by Mr. Trump,” and the document therefore supplied a definitive list of his policies to date (see Doc. D1). These included support for greater U.S.-Israeli military cooperation (and a pledge that the MoU signed by Obama would not limit that support); new sanctions on Iran “as needed,” vetoes of any UN votes that “unfairly single out Israel”; and opposition to any efforts to impose special labeling requirements on Israeli products, to the boycott of Israeli goods, to continued U.S. funding for the UN Human Rights Council, and to the BDS movement, which should be treated as “inherently anti-Semitic.” The document also included pledges to order the Justice Dept. to “investigate coordinated attempts on college campuses to intimidate students who support Israel”; recognize the impossibility of the 2-state solution; support direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians without preconditions (as Netanyahu has called for on numerous occasions); recognize “Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state”; and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. The document also accused the Palestinian leadership of undermining “any chance for peace with Israel” by “raising generations of Palestinian children on an educational program of hatred of Israel and Jews.”

The Israeli govt. welcomed Trump’s election. Netanyahu congratulated the pres.-elect by phone on 11/9, and Trump invited the Israeli PM to visit the White House at his earliest convenience. Education Minister Bennett said (11/8) Trump’s presidency offered “an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the center of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause.” Haaretz later reported (11/10) on a leaked Foreign Ministry document listing expectations for Trump’s 1st term, saying that Israeli diplomats expected the Trump admin. to reduce U.S. involvement in the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, while noting that the pres.-elect’s statements on the subject did not reflect a consistent position.

The Palestinian response to Trump’s election was guarded. A PA spokesperson said (11/8), “We will deal with any president elected by the U.S. people on the principle of achieving permanent peace in the Middle East based on the 2-state solution,”including “the June 4, 1967 lines with East Jerusalem” as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Speaking at the annual conference of a Washington-based think tank and educational NGO dedicated to the Palestinian issue, Palestine’s amb. to the UN, Mansour, stated (11/11) that if the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem “nobody should blame us for unleashing all of the weapons that we have in the UN.”

Throughout his campaign, Trump threatened to “tear up” the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama admin. with the P5+1 and Iran on 7/14/2015, and his election threatened to upend the fragile relationship developing between Iran and the U.S. in the deal’s wake. The Iranian govt., for its part, expressed analogous hesitation. Iran’s FM Mohammad Javad Zarif said (11/10), “Iran’s options are not limited, but our hope and our desire and our preference is for the full implementation of the nuclear agreement, which is not bilateral for 1 side to be able to scrap.”

Legislative Crackdown on BDS

At the state and local level, U.S. officials continued to create new laws to target or otherwise undermine the campaign to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) Israel. Joining 10 other states (see JPS 45 and 46 [1]), California and Pennsylvania both enacted new anti-BDS legislation this quarter. Gov. Jerry Brown signed California’s Combating BDS Act of 2016 into law on 9/24, barring the state from doing business with companies that boycott or discriminate against any sovereign country, including Israel. Almost 6 weeks later, a similar bill arrived on Pennsylvania gov. Tom Wolf’s desk in Harrisburg, which he promptly signed (11/4) into law. Meanwhile, despite growing support for BDS across New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio, otherwise known as a champion of progressive causes, criticized the campaign on 8/20, saying, “There are plenty of people who support BDS who have advanced degrees and who call themselves progressives. I look forward to challenging them, because it’s ahistorical.” The New York City Council later passed, 40–4, a res. condemning “the global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the people of Israel,” and all “efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.”

PA and PLO on Trial

A year and a half after the U.S. District Court of New York found (2/23/2015) the PA and PLO liable for $655 m. in damages on terrorism charges related to a string of attacks in Israel between 2002 and 2004 (see JPS 44 [4]), a federal appeals court threw out the verdict on 8/31. In a unanimous vote, the appeals panel ruled that the lower court did not have jurisdiction over the case: “The federal courts cannot exercise jurisdiction in a civil case beyond the limits prescribed by the due process clause of the Constitution, no matter how horrendous the underlying attacks or morally compelling the plaintiffs’ claims.” A lawyer for the plaintiffs then said (8/31) that they would weigh their options before announcing a new course of action. He indicated that they could ask for a review by the full appeals court or file an appeal themselves with the U.S. Supreme Court.