With the presidential election five days away and the polls heavily tilted toward Joe Biden, the air is thick with prognosticative takes about what policies a Biden administration is likely to pursue. But President Trump has not gone anywhere and may very well remain in the White House come January 20, and this week gave us a preview of what a second Trump term will bring. While we have a demonstrative four year record on Israel, the Palestinians, and the wider Middle East that will not shift course, there are a few elements of a second Trump term that will be different than the first, with the groundwork now beginning to be laid.
The first way in which a second Trump term will differ – though not diverge – from the first is that the annexationist policies that the Trump administration in varying measures actively pushed, acquiesced to, and winked at – most clearly seen in the annexation component of the Trump plan – but did not ultimately execute will be definitively carried out. The theme that has run through the first Trump term with regard to Israel has been a series of American policy decisions that fulfill Israeli requests with no strings attached or without concurrent Israeli policy decisions that meet other American interests. This overall frame has been so comprehensive that nothing conceivably remains on the Israeli government’s wish list save a clear American green light for annexation, which Prime Minister Netanyahu has said multiple times is a requirement for Israel to move forward with official changes to the status of West Bank territory.
While I have long been confident that such approval will be granted by the end of a second Trump term, on Wednesday the yellow light began to noticeably turn green with the signing of a bilateral U.S.-Israel agreement to extend scientific, academic, and commercial projects between the two countries to the West Bank and Golan Heights. The old agreement, signed during the Nixon administration and left unchanged by every subsequent administration until yesterday, stated that these projects, which are taxpayer funded, “may not be conducted in geographical areas which came under the administration of the State of Israel after June 5, 1967, and may not relate to subjects primarily pertinent to such areas.” While this may be seen by some as little more than a logical follow-on to American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and the new State Department legal opinion declaring settlements to no longer be per se inconsistent with international law, it is actually a much bigger step.
Not only in word but in deed, the U.S. is now treating the West Bank as no different than Tel Aviv or Haifa. This is not the same thing as treating Israelis who live in the West Bank no differently than those who live inside the Green Line, which is something that should be unobjectionable unless you advocate boycotting settlers. This is treating the territory itself as different, and while prior to yesterday there was – appropriately in my view – nothing preventing an Israeli living in Bat Ayin from participating in a U.S.-funded joint scientific project, today there is nothing preventing the project itself from taking place in Bat Ayin. However you feel about this, it is not only a de facto recognition of annexation but a de jure one, and better than anything else it reveals the purposeful dissembling involved in insisting that annexation is somehow different than applying sovereignty or extending Israeli law. Those who claim that these distinctions are in any way meaningful, with the Israeli government leading the charge over the past few years in insisting that annexation not actually be called annexation and pretending that “extending Israeli sovereignty to settlements” is somehow less and qualitatively different, have to now contend with the fact that the Trump administration just collapsed these categories. Tel Aviv (undisputed Israeli territory), East Jerusalem (part of Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and thus effectively annexed), the Golan Heights (Israeli law and jurisdiction have been applied), and the West Bank (either disputed territory or belligerently occupied territory depending on whom you ask) are now all treated identically when it comes to American funding for cooperative projects. By the end of a second Trump term, a large portion of the West Bank will undoubtedly move into the annexed/extension of sovereignty and Israeli law category, and yesterday’s announcement is only a preview of coming attractions.
The second way in which a second Trump term will be different than the first will be in the realm of regional proliferation. The groundwork for this was established with the signing of the Abraham Accords and the concurrent pledge from the U.S. to sell F-35s to the United Arab Emirates, but the concrete foundation was poured one week ago when Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed a joint statement reaffirming the American commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East. Gantz flew home and confirmed that Israel was not going to object to the F-35 sale, and this set the stage for what will be an unprecedented weapons flow to a host of Middle Eastern states. The details of the U.S.-Israel agreement that allowed Israel to drop any objections to the Emirati F-35 deal are not public, but it is a commitment to sell more and likely new weapons to Israel in order to offset what the UAE will receive.
If that were the entire story, it would not be terribly noteworthy, particularly as the Emirati F-35s are out of range of Israel’s borders without external fuel tanks or refueling tankers, which are unlikely to be part of the package, and there are a host of ways in which the F-35s themselves can be fitted so that they do not create an insurmountable obstacle to Israel’s security in the event of a future hostile government. But this will not be the end of the story, as now that the UAE will be getting F-35s, the Saudis, Qataris, and Egyptians will want them too. If they don’t get them, the U.S. may provide them with other advanced fighters such as F-16s, or they may look to purchase alternative systems and equipment from Russia or China. This will create a rapidly spiraling escalation, and while Israel may be able to keep pace in some ways, the more advanced weaponry there is scattered throughout the Middle East, the harder this becomes. It also makes it trickier to determine to what extent Israel’s QME has been protected or eroded since that requires quantifying and measuring relative gains rather than absolute ones, a harder task when everyone’s capabilities are shooting upward. Weapons sales are the lubricant that the Trump administration has used for normalization agreements between Israel and other states, and may be an end in themselves given Trump’s oft-stated desire to sell more American-made weapons, and a second Trump term will see this dynamic further accelerate.
One week from now, we will hopefully (though not definitely) know which man will be sitting in the Oval Office for the next four years. Should it be Trump, look for more of the same but taken to extreme conclusions.