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Rose Report: Unpacking the Trump Doctrine

Binyamin Rose

Trump’s new national security strategy dispenses with predecessors’ delusions

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

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Trump Talk

In the same week that President Trump cut 20 years off Sholom Rubashkin’s prison term, he also found Israel not guilty of the 70-year old canard of being the major impediment to Middle East peace.

“Today, the threats from jihadist terrorist organizations and the threat from Iran are creating the realization that Israel is not the cause of the region’s problems,” wrote Trump in his first National Security Strategy (NSS) report as president.

While reiterating that the US remains committed to helping facilitate a comprehensive peace agreement acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians, Trump also noted that many Middle Eastern states now see Israel as part of the solution in building regional stability, and not the problem.

The law requiring the president to submit an annual report to Congress on the nation’s national security strategy is as old as the State of Israel, first passed in 1947 and amended in 1986. President Clinton issued an NSS seven times during his eight years in office, while George W. Bush and Barack Obama sufficed with one in each four-year term.

Trump’s first report upended the last 16 years of US Middle East foreign policy under Bush and Obama.

Bush’s final report, in 2006, contained a line on the two-state solution that sounded like it belonged in the “Dream Act,” suggesting: “The opportunity for peace and statehood — a consistent goal of this Administration — is open if Hamas will abandon its terrorist roots and change its relationship with Israel.”

Either the Hamas leadership glossed over that line, or something was lost in the translation to Arabic.

Bush didn’t get the Middle East. Ariel Sharon warned him not to invade Iraq, saying the US could never make seder there. Bush ignored the advice. Even after five years and close to $1 trillion fighting Islamic terror in the caves of Afghanistan and mountains of Iraq, Bush’s 2006 tome noted that “the war on terror is a battle of ideas, it is not a battle of religions.”

President Trump was not so gracious. Citing radical Islam nine times, he noted that America is “fighting a long war against these fanatics who advance a totalitarian vision for a global Islamist caliphate that justifies murder and slavery, promotes repression, and seeks to undermine the American way of life.”

Barack Obama’s national security strategy didn’t fare much better under Trump’s microscope. Cynics might say that’s because Obama didn’t have a national security strategy other than to make Iran great again. Scholars such as James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, contends Trump supplanted Obama’s vision of “a rules-based international order advanced by US leadership” with one calling for “cooperation with reciprocity.”

In other words, if under Obama the US was the engine that pushes the train from behind, with Trump, America leads and gives only when it gets.

Binyamin Netanyahu must have appreciated Trump’s use of the term reciprocity, a catchword he employed successfully in his first campaign for prime minister in 1996 to ensure there would be no more one-sided giveaways to the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu has stuck to his guns, and that might be the main reason he’s stuck around as prime minister. Time will tell how Trump fares with his new doctrine, compared to his predecessors.

Trading Bodies with Terrorists

Speaking of one-sided giveaways, must Israel return the bodies of five Islamic Jihad terrorists buried in the rubble of a terror tunnel the IDF blew up in late October?

The Supreme Court ruled two weeks ago that either the Knesset must pass a law within six months giving the government the authority to keep the bodies as bargaining chips, or the government must return them unilaterally. The government contends it can legally hold the bodies as long as it needs to, as trade bait for the remains of two IDF soldiers and two other Israeli civilians who wandered into Gaza.

I reached out to two reliable sources for some clarity. First, I asked Professor Asa Kasher, author of the IDF ethics code, if the code covers such a case. He said no; the code is meant to guide the behavior of individuals in military uniform, while negotiations take place on a governmental level. He added that the ethics code includes the values of “comradeship,” ensuring the IDF will never leave a slain soldier’s body behind, and protects the human dignity of enemy casualties.

“The government and all executive authorities can do only what the law gives them authority to do,” Kasher said. “Since there is no such law regarding cadavers of terrorists, the court sent the issue to the legislature to write and enact such a law. Sounds reasonable to me.”

A second source, Eugene Kontorovich, a constitutional law professor at Northwestern University and director of the international law department at Jerusalem’s Kohelet Policy Forum, disagreed.

“There is already a law on the books that these are tactical decisions a military commander has the discretion to make,” Kontorovich said. “The Supreme Court merely said that law doesn’t apply.”

Both men have valid points.

The three-judge Supreme Court panel issued their 2-1 ruling against the government based on a 1945 statute, passed prior to statehood, that gave Haganah military commanders authority to order the temporary burial of bodies of terrorists for bargaining purposes.

The government argues that keeping the bodies of the Islamic Jihad terrorists in the tunnel amounts to a legal temporary burial, but Justices Yoram Danziger and George Kara ruled that the 1945 law is too general, and even a security cabinet update in 2015 was insufficient to cover this specific case.

The lone dissenter, Neal Hendel, argued the 1945 statute is still applicable when state security or the public welfare is at stake, or even when a slight chance exists that holding bodies will induce an enemy to enter negotiations.

At press time, the government was fighting back on two fronts. On the advice of attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, the government is appealing the 2-1 decision to a broader panel of either seven or nine justices. In the Knesset, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is plowing ahead with legislation that would curb the powers of the Supreme Court to overturn or over-interpret the laws of the land.

Until something gives, the standoff continues, and that’s to Israel’s advantage, said Professor Kontorovich.

“Everyone agrees the bodies should be returned and buried, but we want to bury our bodies too,” Kontorovich said. “There are only two solutions: either they [Islamic Jihad] just get theirs, which is a bad ending, or we get ours and they get theirs back, which is better.” (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 691)

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