Like Obama, Trump is armed and dangerous
John Kerry, who laid out his parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement last week, did not break new ground. It is not surprising: as Secretary of State, he always had good intentions but rarely the skill to match them. In Syria, his failure is visible to the naked eye of all observers. As a negotiator with Iran, he was successfully manipulated by his interlocutors, resulting in the deal that he reached. As a negotiator with Israel and the Palestinians, he made one mistake after another, until he surrendered to reality and withdrew, disappointed and angry with the peace-rejectionists who, for some reason, would not accept his formulations of supposed reason.
The President that he served, Barack Obama, will not go down in history as someone whose period in office was particularly successful for US foreign policy – certainly not when it comes to US dominance in the world. In the Middle East he will go down as someone who sowed wind and reaped a whirlwind. But he will, after all the fury and speech making, return to his cosy, wind-proof home. We, in the region, will get wet in the rain.
The last episode of the exciting drama “Barack and Binyamin” unraveled last week to the open jaws of viewers all over the world. It exposed an American president, a supposedly cool and level-headed one, in all is vindictive pettiness. It exposed an Israeli PM – and the country whose well-being he is in charge of – in all of their pathetic dependency. The moment an American president, annoying as he is, pulls the rug from under Israel’s feet, it turns out that there’s no floor underneath – there’s just an abyss. Israel will rejoice, and rightly so, the day Obama leaves office and hands the reins over to his successor; but the successor also learned an interesting lesson last week about the balance of power between Israel and the United States: When America sneezes, Israel gets a cold.
This Hanukah, Israel had a good opportunity to reflect on the meaning of this dependency on the American empire. Hanukkah is the holiday of the wondrous Hasmonean kingdom, which came into being when the world around it enabled it, and eventually crashed into pieces when the world changed, not long thereafter. It is the holiday of a kingdom which signed a pact with a rising empire (Rome) and took advantage of the weakness of a crumbling empire (the Seleucids), which identified an opening in the seam between two empires, and which also had quite a lot of luck.
Hanukah is a holiday that offers us an experience of empowerment – as a famous Israeli song goes: “A miracle did not happen to us, we did not find a magic cruse of oil”. It is our strength and fortitude, our rebellion, our heroes, and our wars that gave us victory.
But Hanukah is also a holiday that offers us humility and a measure of introspection – in religious discourse about the holiday, this humility is directed towards the miraculous: it was not us that did it, it was God. This is the reason the cruse of oil is stressed, so we’ll have a clear-cut miracle to go with the hidden miracle of the Maccabees’ victory. In less religious discourse, the humility can be channelled toward the strategic aspect of it all: a miracle did not happen, and it was also not just us. A rare combination of contingencies, wisely-used opportunities, and statesmanship, enabled victory – and the opposite of these things, only one hundred years later or so, brought about weakness and, eventually, collapse.
The Hasmonean kingdom existed as long as the Roman empire let it exist. The modern-day kingdom of Israel exists, to a large extent, because of the position of another empire – the American empire.
Dependency is psychologically unpleasant. It is psychologically frustrating. And it is also a burden on Israel’s policy makers as they deal with the empire that has so much influence on Israel’s future. Sometimes the Americans are smart, sometimes less so. Sometimes they want what’s good for Israel, but mostly they want what’s best for them. Sometimes they are convinced by our arguments, sometimes they are convinced by our detractors. The Americans, as last week proves, can be an aggressive nation. Why are they hitting Israel? Because Israel annoyed them. Why Israel more than others? Because Israel is easier to hit – it’s harder to pick on Putin, who can create much more damage, or Syria, that isn’t dependent on the Americans, or the Palestinian, who would collapse after a single blow.
Obama did Israel a favor and saved his heavy ammunition against it for overtime. He is shooting to harm. But his main target – that is, to bend Israel’s will and force his odd ideas on it – is already beyond his reach. He simply doesn’t have enough time.
Maybe – Israel certainly hopes this is the case – Donald Trump will never use this ammunition against Israel. Maybe Trump will stand with Israel and adopt its positions on every issue on the agenda. Maybe he is not going to try and force Israel into making compromises. Maybe. But Israel would do well to remember the lesson of last week’s Hanukah events: Even if Trump has no intention of ever pressuring Israel, Trump will know – and we will know – that he can. That he is armed and dangerous, and that Israel has few defenses. That Trump could, if he only chooses, to pull the rug from under Israel’s feet.