Israel and US puzzle pieces

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President Obama substantively moved our Israel policy toward becoming a partisan issue and sought to cast Israel as a burden on America. Specifically, his goal was to incubate the notion that Israel is an obstacle for achieving Middle East peace. It worked. Now President Trump must reverse course by highlighting our security is built upon shared interests with Israel.

Obama's hostile policies began on the second day of his presidency. January 22, 2009, George Mitchell, Obama's special envoy for Middle East peace, arrived in Jerusalem with the extreme settlement policy, calling for a freeze on all settlement expansion, including the "natural growth" of existing settlements.

Translation: For every new resident of a settlement, there must be a vacancy, either by death or someone moving out. Though ludicrous, Obama adopted it and made it a precondition for peace negotiations.

Not even the Palestinians complain about all settlements. Prior to Obama, settlements were just one of many issues. Even then, only some of them were problematic. They were not a Palestinian cri de coeur, and they certainly were not a precondition for negotiations. Not even Yasser Arafat demanded that.

It was not just settlements. Before Obama, boycotting Israel would have been unthinkable, not only because "Don't buy from Jews" rings a familiar tone, but also because Israel is our ally. Yet Obama sat idly by while the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement flourished. The U.S. embassy even apologized for a Rosh Hashanah gift basket that it sent containing Israeli wine after the BDS movement criticized it.

And, of course, there was the Obama administration's closing argument, UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning Israel, which joined the U.S. with an international chorus of critics demanding, among other things, an immediate halt to Jewish construction in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. Obama predicated his faux concern on the "unsustainable" situation in place since 1967.

President Trump, in last week's statement on Israel, said, “[T]he construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”

It peels back the idea that not all settlements are bad. It is a significant and necessary change, but to someone not following the minutia of the Israel debate it sounds like a lawyerly parsing of Obama's settlement policy. And it is.

Don't get me wrong. The administration must do this type of thing and more. To combat the BDS movement, the administration should adopt New York Gov. Cuomo's order that the government will not buy from vendors who recognize the BDS boycott. Boycott the boycott, as it were. It should call on the U.S. banks to follow the lead of German bank and close BDS bank accounts. And there is old standby: Defund the UN.

The Trump administration has the chance to demonstrate to voters that helping Israel to become more secure makes us safer as well. 

But none of this changes the mood music. It simply chips away at Obama's ending point. Instead, we should fundamentally refocus the debate on mutual security threats — and stop incessantly browbeating Israel over the peace process.

This incessant browbeating camouflages the fundamental point that the only way to bring a lasting peace to the region is by helping Israel become safe. Moreover, the browbeating obscures the fact that many of the critical issues standing in the way of Israeli-Palestinian peace overlap with our own security interests. Iran's regional ambitions and the Islamic radical ideology — that constitutes the scaffolding propping up Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, etc. — are just two.

Because of Obama's pugilistic attitude toward Israel and his transactional narrative for the region, the American public went eight years without a competent account for why our two countries are even allies. We are not allies because of religious or cultural affinity, though those are certainly valid reasons to support Israel. And our alliance certainly does not prevent a budding U.S.-Iranian friendship. We are allies because our shared democratic values convey shared interests.

The Trump administration has the chance to demonstrate to voters that helping Israel to become more secure makes us safer as well. Bonus: Israel will help us in return. (Common interests tend to work out that way.)

It will make Middle East peace far more likely, it could dislodge stalled peace talks that have only regressed since 2000, and it will demonstrate that Israel is a vital partner in our security. It will be a dramatic change from Obama's policies that pushed the view that Israel is a millstone around America's neck and a stumbling block to peace.

Kristofer L. Harrison was a Defense and State Department official in the George W. Bush administration and is a foreign policy adviser to Senator Ted Cruz. His views here are his own. You can view his LinkedIn profile here.