Discussing the Future of Israeli American Relations in an Age of Uncertaintyby Natalie Jacobs February 27, 2017
Professor Jacob Goldberg will return to the Jewish Community Center this month for his 15th annual three-day lecture series on the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and Israel relations.
These lectures typically turn out more than 1,200 attendees. With all the uncertainty that this new U.S. administration has presented to the whole world, organizers at the Center for Jewish Culture are expecting record numbers this year.
I spoke with Professor Goldberg to get a sense of what’s what in the Middle East, whether he sees any stabilizing efforts on the horizon, and how this year’s lectures might differ from those in the past (hint: Russia). Here is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation.
San Diego Jewish Journal: Do you anticipate anything different with this lecture series than say last year?
Jacob Goldberg: Every year there is an additional element. But in general, the attendance in the lectures has grown by 30-40 percent in the last years because of the centrality of the Middle East in world affairs since the so-called Arab Spring. The Western media has not given the Middle East such centrality ever before as it has in the last four or five years.
And of course now, with Trump being elected, I think people have so many questions about what his policies in the Middle East will look like.
SDJJ: After his inaugural address I was left wondering what does an “America first” policy mean for Israel? Does this increased sense of American protectionism worry Israel?
JG: The best way to describe Israeli attitude towards Trump is to say that he is an enigma. The Israelis are very confused, not unlike the rest of the world, because he has said so many different and at times contradictory things that it’s very hard for people to tell where he is on all the issues.
As far as Netanyahu himself was concerned, it’s very hard to tell what he really hoped for. We said jokingly before the elections that if you ask the Israeli Prime Minister who does he want to win the elections, we would say that Netanyahu wanted Clinton to win but Bibi wanted Trump to win. That really reflects the confusion because at the same time that Netanyahu is happy that it is Trump and the Republican party and so on, he is very worried about the unpredictability, for two reasons. Number one, early in his election campaign, one of his first statements was, on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, “I am neutral.” It was only later, much later, before he came to speak at AIPAC in March that all of a sudden he became very pro-Israel and speaking about moving the embassy.
Netanyahu doesn’t know which Trump will it be to determine Israeli-American relations.
Now the second reason is that historically there have been two segments within the Republican party of the United States. One segment was always really strong on foreign policy, on containing the Soviet Union, now on Russia, and protecting American allies all over the world and providing a security umbrella and intervening places where American interests are in danger.
There has been at the same time a segment that has been isolationist. That might be the answer to your question about Trump’s “America first.”
“America first” could mean we shouldn’t really get involved in areas far away from the U.S. which do not affect our security and national interest in a very direct way. Or, for example, when it comes to Saudi Arabia and wherever else, let them defend themselves and let them pay for whatever weapons. These isolationists can be very worrisome for Israel. It still remains to be seen which way would this “America first” slogan translate into concrete and tangible policies.
SDJJ: Is there anything coming up between the two countries that we could look to for the first sign of which way it might go?
JG: Well, the major thing of the 10-year security relationship [was] concluded about six weeks before the election. At least Netanyahu positioned that as a major achievement and he thanked President Obama profusely. I think this was $38 billion over 10 years of mostly armaments and air force.
The most public Israeli American issue has been the Jerusalem embassy but quite honestly, a lot of Israelis are not putting a lot of emphasis on this. They say it’s a symbolic thing, it will not do anything to enhance Israeli American relations and it will certainly turn out in the future to be destabilizing in terms of Israeli, Palestinian and growing relations with the Sunni Arab world such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc.
I think that under the radar, the most important issue that might affect Israeli American relations that people do not talk so much about is Trump’s policy [regarding] Russia and Putin.
SDJJ: What is Israel’s relationship with Russia?
JG: It’s a very complex one. During the Communist Era, Israel and Russia were sort of enemies, adversaries. For many years, the Six Day War until the ’80s there weren’t even diplomatic relations between the countries. [Then] of course all the Russian Jews left, over a million came to Israel within two years.
Especially since Putin came to power, the relationship might be characterized as twofold: on the one hand, Russia wants a significant role in Middle East politics. This is a new policy pursued by Putin in the last four or five years, trying to take advantage of the Arab chaos.
The civil war in Syria provided Russia with an excellent opportunity to not only come in politically and diplomatically, but also militarily. Russia is trying to establish better relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, countries that have been totally within the American sphere of influence.
With Israel, Putin wants to establish very close, warm relations. He always says that Russia cannot be an enemy of Israel because 1.5 million Israelis speak Russian.
But on a strategic level, the two countries are on a collision course. Because of the Russian military intervention in Syria, the freedom of action of the Israeli air force in the area has been curtailed. Whenever Israel wants to bomb weapons deliveries to Hezbollah that arrive in the Damascus airport from Iran that are going to Lebanon, Israel now has to take into consideration the Russian presence. This is why top military officials have been visiting Moscow. Netanyahu himself was in Moscow I think four times in 2016 to establish a working relationship over Syria.
If Russia goes into other countries, that is, from Israel’s point of view, a very bad development. It means that America has created a vacuum in the Middle East and into this vacuum we see Russia only happy to enter and to reestablish its influence in the Middle East.
In a way, we call it the resumption of the Cold War in the Middle East, except that instead of saying the Soviet Union, we just say Russia. But it’s clear that the Russian American competition in the Middle East which disappeared for almost 20 years is definitely back as a major phenomenon in the Middle East.
SDJJ: If the U.S. does miraculously create this warm relationship with Russia, what might that look like?
JG: The point is, we don’t know yet, especially when the Secretary of Defense and the head of the CIA are vehemently opposed to Russian offensive intentions in the Middle East, how they would go along with Trump trying to warm up relations with Russia.
And we also don’t know what are the origins of this Trump Putin cozy relationship. It’s been a huge question mark and we have no idea how U.S. Russia relations will evolve and this is why we have no idea how Trump’s policies in the Middle East will look.
I think that within the next six months we will start getting some idea of where it’s heading. [But for now] this is a total enigma.
Details on Professor Goldberg’s lectures can be found at sdcjc.org.