1. Last-minute honors
In a couple of weeks, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and their family will leave Washington and resettle in South Florida, not far from Donald Trump, who will make Mar-a-Lago his permanent residence.
Before they leave for the Sunshine State, Israel’s government is making sure to show its gratitude to Kushner for four years of holding the administration’s Middle East portfolio, brokering normalization agreements with four Arab countries and shifting America’s policy in the region to a more Likud-oriented posture.
Israelis may not be known for their fancy gifts, but they have a knack for historic symbolic presents.
So what did Kushner find in his goody bag?
He got a framed plaque inscribed with the Israeli leaders’ words of gratitude for Kushner’s “historic contribution to the Abraham Accords, the normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world, and to peace in the Middle East.”
He was also honored with the planting of 18 olive trees in the Grove of Nations in Jerusalem. “In planting the Kushner garden of peace,” the Israeli prime minister said in the ceremony, “we will ensure that future generations know what your contribution has been.”
But that’s not all. Kushner also got a gift from David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel. A courtyard in the American embassy in Jerusalem will now be named “the Kushner Courtyard.”
All in all, not bad parting gifts.
Donald Trump, Kushner’s father-in-law, made his fortune by branding properties across the world with his name. Now Jared can add his own brand to a garden, and a courtyard in Israel. And pieces of symbolic real estate are only a couple of hours drive away from Trump Heights in the Golan, a short ride from the Donald Trump Square in Petah Tikva, and just a stone’s throw away from the Trump train station in Jerusalem.
2. It’s also a time for pardons. Many, many pardons
Some gifts are symbolic in nature, while others really make a difference.
And President Trump, in his final weeks in office, is focusing on the latter, with a lengthy list of pardons and commutations.
Trump has been generous with his pardons, especially to close allies, Republican politicians, and former aides and advisors. He has also been generous toward members of the Jewish community.
Most recently, he pardoned Jared’s dad, Charles Kushner, who spent 18 months behind bars for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign donations. Trump also pardoned Philip Esformes, who was convicted for major Medicare fraud and released after intense lobbying by a Jewish Orthodox group. In previous rounds, he pardoned junk bond king Michael Milken and former Bush administration official Lewis “Scooter” Libby, and in his early years in office Trump granted a pardon to Sholom Rubashkin, the former head of America’s largest kosher meat processing plant, and to Israeli-born drug dealer Ronen Nahmani.
3. Tying up loose ends of Pompeo’s West Bank strategy
Remember Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s farewell trip to Israel last month? Remember his promise, delivered during a visit to a West Bank settlement winery, to end the practice of labeling goods imported to the U.S. from the settlements as “Made in the West Bank” and instead make clear they were made in Israel?
Well, the final language codifying these policy changes has been posted on the federal register.
It’s extremely detailed and technical, but the document provides a glance into the Trump administration’s efforts to legalize all aspects of Israel’s Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
The rules define all products imported from Area C (parts of the West Bank under Israeli control which include the settlements) and H2 (the Jewish quarter in Hebron) as made in Israel.
Products imported from Areas A and B (under Palestinian full control or civilian control) and H1 (Hebron) will be labeled as made in the West Bank. But the rules put an end to the practice of labeling products made by Palestinians as “made in West Bank/Gaza.” The reason? “Gaza and the West Bank are politically and administratively separate and should be treated accordingly,” the document explains. In other words, the U.S. no longer necessarily sees them as equal parts of a future Palestinian entity.
And one more point: The document bases these assertions on the 1995 Oslo Accords, making it clear that whether Israel or the Trump administration like it or not, this agreement signed between the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat is still the legal foundation for America’s policy toward the conflict.
And one more reminder: Export of West Bank goods to the U.S. is tiny, so this whole discussion is at best symbolic and will impact the life or livelihood of no one on the ground.
4. Aid to Israel turns into a political football
A lot has changed in four years.
When Trump campaigned for office back in 2016, pro-Israel activists were worried. Their main concern: Trump, signaling a shift toward isolationism and “America First,” would tamper with U.S. foreign aid to Israel. Adding to the confusion was a troubling comment made by Trump just hours before he took the stage at the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. “I think Israel would do that also. There are many countries that can pay, and they can pay big-league,” Trump said when asked specifically if he thinks Israel should be included in the list of countries he believes should pay back America for its help.
The comment created a mini stir, which was quickly quelled by repeated clarifications that under a Trump administration there is no threat to the future of foreign aid to Israel.
And he lived up to his promise.
Despite Trump’s overall dislike of spending American taxpayer dollars on foreign nations and faraway conflicts, Trump signed off on the $3.8 billion a year package reached by his predecessor Obama and was more than happy to add on to this sum when Congress requested it.
But when Trump last week refused to sign the COVID-19 stimulus package approved by Congress, and the omnibus spending bill which it was attached to, echoes of these old concerns resurfaced.
Trump called the spending bill “wasteful” and spoke out against lawmakers who “found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests, while sending the bare minimum to the American people who need it.” He named names: Cambodia, Burma, Egypt, Pakistan, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.
Israel, which is about to get $500 million for missile defense needs in the bill, was not mentioned by Trump.
Then why worry?
Because foreign aid is always a hard sell. American presidents try to hide this budget item, fearing that voters will never accept the fact that America is spending money on foreign nations instead of on Americans. And when foreign aid as a whole is under attack, so is aid to Israel. That’s why AIPAC has always made a point of lobbying for robust American foreign assistance for many overseas causes, not only for Israel.
And to be clear, it’s not only the right that has taken issue with foreign aid spending. It’s also coming from left-wing activists who’d like to see less aid to Israel.
Much of this uproar has to do with the unfortunate political coincidence of attaching the long-awaited COVID-19 relief bill to the just-as-long-awaited year’s end spending bill. This opened the door for largely-demagogic attacks on money somehow going for foreign aid (or any other cause one can find in the 5,000-page long legislation) instead of for helping Americans in need.
But it also highlights the delicate and never-ending battle over aid to Israel. It may enjoy broad consensus among lawmakers, but when times get tough, foreign aid will always be first on the chopping block.
5. Setting the stage for the next big battle
Joe Biden’s foreign policy team is already working full speed to prepare for the January 20 transition, and while Israel is not the top item on their agenda, it could turn out to be the source of the Biden administration’s first major policy battle.
And it’s all about Iran.
On one side of this looming battle, there is an incoming administration that has clearly indicated its will to return to the Iran nuclear deal (after making sure Iran goes back to fulfilling its part in the agreement). Recently, 150 Democratic lawmakers signed a letter in support of re-entering the nuclear deal.
On the other side, Israel seems to be gearing up for a fight not unlike the one Netanyahu led when the deal was originally reached in 2015.
As vice president, Biden experienced first-hand Netanyahu’s ability to influence American public opinion, to mobilize Republicans and to sow doubt among otherwise pro-Obama American Jews.
Now he will face Bibi again (assuming the upcoming elections in Israel don’t deliver a major surprise) and with him another familiar face–Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington who is returning to Jerusalem next month. Dermer, a member of Netanyahu’s inner circle of policy advisers and, according to reports, one of those considered by Netanyahu as a possible successor, made no secret of his thoughts about Biden’s possible return to the Iran deal. The outgoing ambassador called on Biden not to “go back to the mistakes of the past,” sending a clear message about Israel’s stance and a reminder on how it might react if Biden makes such a “mistake.”