US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s departure from the White House has been the source of considerable concern in Israel. For decades, the veteran diplomat and former UN ambassador has been among the most powerful supporters of a strong US-Israel alliance in Washington. During his tenure as President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, Bolton worked steadily on expanding US-Israel strategic ties across a wide spectrum of critical issues from Iran, to the Palestinians and beyond.
Israelis would have greeted the departure of their strong ally and friend with concern regardless of the circumstances. But, the fact that he was fired, (or by Bolton’s telling, felt compelled to resign), just days after Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians resigned from his position and as reports proliferate that Trump is seriously considering reducing economic sanctions on Iran in the hopes of scoring a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly later this month, intensified the concern.
Although reasonable on their face, Bolton’s termination needs to be seen in two wider contexts. The first context is the environment in Washington that confronted Bolton in his position.
From the day he took up his duties a year and a half ago as Trump’s third national security advisor, Bolton was under assault. The campaign against Bolton was initiated by the Iranian regime. Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif blamed poor US-Iran relations on Bolton, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Zarif’s campaign was quickly joined by Obama administration officials who took to the US media parroting the same allegations. The Iranians, by their telling were guileless lambs. The big bad wolves were Bolton, Bibi and bin Salman.
In recent months, as Iran stepped up its aggression against international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz, the attacks against Bolton were joined by members of the isolationist wing of the Republican party led by Fox New host Tucker Carlson and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
It is true that Bolton is known as a prickly policymaker out of his element in the Trump world. But it is also true that Trump and Bolton agreed far more than they disagreed. Unfortunately, every time there was a dispute between the two men, Obama hangovers in government and their allies outside government from the Obama administration and the media were quick to report those disagreements and angrily slander Bolton as a warmonger and a mercenary who had neither America’s best interests, nor the president’s best interest at heart.
The allegations were entirely false. But their force and volume transformed every normal, and entirely legitimate disagreement between Bolton and Trump into a major, widely reported event.
Under the circumstances, it was probably a foregone conclusion that Bolton’s days would be numbered.
In other words, Bolton’s departure had more to do with the stress of working in the toxic environment in Washington than with a change in Trump’s basic predisposition regarding foreign policy.
The second context that needs to be considered when judging the implications of Bolton’s termination is the context of another event that happened almost at the same time that Trump was tweeting he had fired Bolton.
That event was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning announcement that he has secured US support for his plan to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea immediately after the elections, if he is reelected. His statement was a watershed event.
For fifty-two years, no US administration has agreed to acknowledge Israel’s rights to Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley. To the contrary, previous administrations have argued that even if Israel has rights, its right to assert those rights is contingent of Palestinian agreement. Since the PLO and Hamas will never accept Israel’s rights in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley, (just as they will never accept Israel’s rights to Tel Aviv or Tiberius), the effective US position for the past 52 years has been to reject Israel’s rights in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
And yet, the same day that Bolton was fired, Netanyahu rose to the podium and said that the US supports his plan to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley.
Substantively, this means that the Trump administration accepts that the Palestinians cannot have veto power over Israel’s right to secure borders and to territories that were allocated to the Jewish people under international law under the League of Nations Mandate in 1922.
The White House’s response to Netanyahu’s statement was equally groundbreaking. Under the friendly Bush administration Israel had to argue for its right to enable Jewish communities to expand to keep up with “natural growth,” that is, the birth of children. Under the hostile Obama administration, Israel was pilloried for every new home built in united Jerusalem. Yet on Tuesday, the White House press briefer told reporters simply that Netanyahu’s plan does not contradict the president’s peace plan.
The White House responded to Netanyahu’s statement in the same press briefing where it discussed Bolton’s departure from the White House. Had Bolton been the sole source of the administration’s supportive positions on Israel, Netanyahu would likely have cancelled his news conference.
The fact that Netanyahu’s made his announcement as Bolton’s departure was being announced signaled that his support for Israel had nothing to do with his departure, and the administration’s positions on Israel are unlikely to change now that he is gone.
This then brings us to a person who does play a singular role in maintaining and growing Israel’s unprecedented cooperation with the Trump administration. That person is Netanyahu himself. Netanyahu and Trump have a relationship unlike any that any Israeli prime minister has ever enjoyed with any US president. There is a clear affinity between the two leaders that stems from more than the mere coincidence that they happen to be leading their countries at the same time.
The similarities in their relations with the political, media, legal and bureaucratic establishments in their respective nations, the incessant investigations to which both men have been subjected in office as well as similar trajectories of their personal biographies give the two leaders a natural affinity for one another. Add to that their similar political perspectives, including their idealistic nationalism and you have the basis for their unique bond.
This affinity has contributed significantly to Netanyahu’s success in achieving unparalleled breakthroughs in Israel’s relations with the US. While it seems like it comes naturally, the fact is that all the policy moves that Trump has made in Israel’s favor were won in hard-fought battles. For every advocate for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran, and now accepting Israel’s right to assert its rights in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley, there have been one thousand opponents.
To be sure, Netanyahu is not the only reason these gains were made. Trump’s evangelical constituents, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Amb. David Friedman, Jared Kushner, Greenblatt, Bolton and a handful of senators were all instrumental in convincing Trump to take on the establishments of Washington and Europe and stand with Israel. But Netanyahu’s contribution has been singular. Had a different politician stood at the helm of Israeli politics during this period, it is far from clear these goals would have been set, let alone achieved.
The Palestinians recognize this. PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas last month said that he is hoping that Netanyahu loses the elections on Tuesday. Last week, the head of the Arab Israeli Joint List Ayman Odeh gave an interview to Palestinian television where he said that no prime minister has ever had such a strong relationship with the US president and that unseating Netanyahu is a Palestinian “national goal.”
Bolton’s departure is a loss for Israel, because he truly is a great friend of the Jewish state. But he leaves an administration that was pro-Israel when he arrived and remains pro-Israel in his absence. Tuesday’s elections, on the other hand will be decisive in determining the future course of US-Israel ties under Trump and into the future.