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April Opinion Piece

Dr Ron Weiser AM 

This week we will be celebrating the 69th anniversary of the re-establishment of the Jewish State – Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut – preceded by Yom Hazikaron where we remember those who fell in the defence of the State of Israel.

This comes on the back of efforts formalised 120 years ago at Basel by the First Zionist Congress led by Theodore Herzl with one aim – Jewish self-determination.

And it is of the highest importance that those commemorating the one and celebrating the other understand that they both revolve around statehood. Nothing less and nothing more.

Of course it is important that the Jewish State be inside Eretz Yisrael – the biblical and historical Land of Israel – but these two days are about the State and those who fail to realise that really miss the whole point.

Now not withstanding different views of what the Jewish State should look like, the key is that it should be the Jewish people who make that determination.

Both internally and with the neighbourhood.

We have to decide if we will set the agenda or be made to follow the needs of our allies for Israel to be seen to continue to want to make an arrangement to resolve the Palestinian question more or less around the two state solution formula.

Till now, certainly this has been the policy of successive Israeli governments anyway.

In fact, Israel’s desire to end the conflict and to not take actions that counteract that as others see it, rather than the ending of the conflict itself, seems to be the first order requirement.

Israel is particularly keen to keep her largest and most important ally, the United States, on board.

After an uneasy 8 years with President Obama the irony is that under President Trump whilst the personal relationship between Trump and Netanyahu is at an all-time high, Israel is doing everything possible to ensure that at least until we know what President Trump wants, Israel shows restraint in any number of areas – not the least of which are self-imposed conditions on settlement expansion.

The change in tone and in the laying of responsibility for the impasse in the conflict on the Palestinians, is remarkable. And this is possibly best reflected in US actions at the UN led by Nikki Haley.

However, in other areas no-one can be sure what Trump plans.

To date and despite Trump’s campaign promises, in most areas not much has changed – yet.

And the reality is that what he has in mind and how that meshes or not with Israeli thinking will be critical.

Although many people are convinced that the Israeli American relationship is one of equals with both sides needing the other, the reality is that that is not so. It is a lopsided relationship.

A simple example of how this manifests itself is that Israeli papers daily lead with and are filled by Trump, Trump, Trump.

American papers do not begin the day reporting the statements and thoughts of Netanyahu.

Of course, it is early days in the Trump presidency, but the shaping of Trump’s plans has not proceeded according to what many in Israel had expected.

In regards to:

1 – settlements, whilst the right wing in Israel expected Trump’s election to green light new settlements, Trump has seemed to accept growth within the existing settlement footprint but has criticised growth beyond this as “unhelpful”. As a result, the Israeli government, including Naphtali Bennett has voted to self-restrict settlement expansion

2 – moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem was supposed to occur virtually on the day of Trump becoming President. This may yet occur as we are approaching an end May deadline at which point in time under American law, Trump must either allow the move to be made, or will delay the decision for another 6 months.
Israel has not publicly lobbied for the move other than to say it would be a right and proper idea and has steadfastly refrained from criticising Trump for not having moved the embassy to date.

3 – Syria, Trump has turned full circle. The Israeli position was that whilst ISIS was bad, letting Iran control Syria was worse. Trump came in more or less continuing the Obama policy of tolerating Assad remaining as part of an Iranian/Russian/Syrian stabilising force, with the vacuum created by the absence of US military might and with destroying ISIS as the prime aim.

As we know, Trump was even more adamant than Obama to not use US military force in the conflict.

However, after Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, a previously non-enforced Obama red line, Trump allegedly was disgusted by the horrific images of suffering children and unleashed a US attack on a Syrian airfield.

And then stated critically, that US policy had changed and Assad had to go.

Whilst one may find some satisfaction in Trump now agreeing that Iran should not be allowed to stay in Syria, if it was all a reaction to some images, shocking as they may be, then that is not an entirely rational way to make policy.

One should also note that despite further killing of children in Syria by Assad military action in the immediate days after the US response and in the same areas, no further US military action ensued.

Apparently, it is not the protection of Syrian children that is the issue, but rather the methods employed to massacre them.

4 – Arab states. Aside from listening to Israel, Trump appears to have unexpectedly listened more closely to their needs and advice as he goes about forming “the deal”. Particularly to King Abdulla II of Jordan who has repeatedly told Trump that the US Embassy should not be moved and that a Palestinian State is a necessity.

At the end of the day, in the odd geopolitics of the world today, Trump’s wishes, when we know them, will have possibly more influence on events in the Middle East than any other individual’s thinking in living memory when “the deal” is proposed.

Trump has surprised positively by moving slower on Middle East questions than on other matters and with a lot more consultation with all of the stake holders.

The day after Yom Ha’atzmaut, ironically, and something no-one would have predicted 3 months ago, President Abbas and his entourage will arrive in the USA for a personal meeting with President Trump.

Apparently visas in this case are not a problem.

Abbas too, like Netanyahu, will be very careful to not give cause to upset Trump and neither will want to be blamed for the failure of “the deal” if that occurs.

Just as Netanyahu and his government has exercised self-restraint to not fall out of favour with Trump, so too have Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

Just this week Abbas toned down the current hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and separated the PA politically even more from Gaza and Hamas.

However, as we see with Trump and as a good dealmaker should, he seems to be intent on giving each side something positive.

On Thursday President Trump, in a statement that reads quite differently from some only a few weeks ago said:

“There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians – none whatsoever.”

Of course we do not know if this was a thought bubble or considered comment.

Whilst Trump himself has never visited Israel, all of the Israeli press are abuzz with the planning of a one night visit by President Trump to Israel.

Rumours are that it will be on Yom Yerushalayim, this year the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

Now not only would Trump be the first US President to visit Israel so early in his term, but the symbolism of a visit on this day would be absolutely enormous.

And also raises expectations about an Embassy move – or not.

May will be a critical month and we should have a better idea by its end as to what Trump has in mind.
Whilst all of that is important, we have great cause for celebrations this week.

In order for a small nation, even one that punches way above its weight, to do so in the real world, requires skills in a variety of areas.

One cannot but fail to be impressed with the way in which the Prime Minister of Israel seems to shuttling almost every week between the major powers, and a considerable number of smaller ones, well welcomed, praised, Israeli products and expertise being sought all around the globe and a generally good ambience with greater understanding of Israel’s position.

We have never seen this before and this alone should tell us a lot about the position of Israel in the world today, quite amazing.

Israel has never been stronger, has never been better placed to face the challenges ahead and yes, despite our wish to almost never recognise good news, we are as I have said in the past, in somewhat of a golden era.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Dr Ron Weiser AM

Dr. Ron Weiser AM is the Zionist Federation of Australia Public Affairs Chairman and the Hon Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW.