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Israel's Expectations For U.S. Policy With Incoming Administration

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump vowed this in a tweet late yesterday - as to the U.N., things will be different after January 20. That was Trump's response after the Obama administration abstained from voting on a U.N. resolution denouncing Israeli settlement construction. The U.S. abstention also prompted sharp words from Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. For more on this and Israel's expectations for the new U.S. administration, we've called journalist Chemi Shalev in Tel Aviv. Welcome to our program.

CHEMI SHALEV: Hi, how are you?

WERTHEIMER: Now, your prime minister accused the Obama administration of failing to protect Israel against a gang-up at the U.N. by not vetoing the resolution. Netanyahu said Israel looks forward to working with President-elect Trump. And apparently, Mr. Netanyahu persuaded Mr. Trump to get into this fight.

SHALEV: Yes, I think actually that may have been, you know, the final nail in the - finally on the coffin, as it were, of this episode because it's clear to me that Netanyahu's behavior in the past few days - if Obama had been wavering in any way and considering maybe to veto the Security Council resolution rather than abstaining, he was probably incensed by Netanyahu's behavior, and especially by his direct appeal to Trump. Israeli ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer yesterday even congratulated Trump for intervening.

And I think that if - any thoughts of vetoing the bill were put away by the prime minister's behavior in the past few days, as well as the Israeli government's behavior for the past few weeks as it dealt with the issue of an outpost called Amona and was planning to actually legalize all the outposts in the West Bank that it had previously - in previous years promised to evacuate.

WERTHEIMER: Now...

SHALEV: Go ahead.

WERTHEIMER: Netanyahu's relationship with President Obama was never great. But do you think that anyone in Israel is confused or distressed by this dueling presidents thing we've got going on?

SHALEV: No, I don't think that's what distresses Israelis. I think Israelis - it's fair to say that a majority of Israelis were not enamored with President Obama and that even though they perhaps didn't have any preferences, you know, in the election campaign, they now believe that President Trump will be better for Israel. And some steps that President Trump has taken, including the appointment of a very controversial ambassador, David Friedman, is nonetheless perceived in Israel as indicating that relations will be much warmer than they were under Obama.

You know, the thing that - the term that Israelis do not like to hear is even-handed. When the U.S. says that it's going to be even-handed, Israelis get nervous because they do not want even-handed. They want full support for Israel. And so while this was a culmination, in a way, the Security Council vote, of the eight years of pretty bad relations that Netanyahu had with Obama, it's like a swan song. It's like a finale. And now, as Netanyahu says, he and his government - and probably a lot of Israelis - are waiting for Mr. Trump to take office on the expectation that things will change dramatically.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Mr. Trump has said some things that other candidates have said in the past. For one, that he will move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I assume Israelis would welcome that move. But do you think it'll happen?

SHALEV: Well, it's very hard to tell. I don't have a crystal ball into President Trump's behavior, and I don't think anybody has, and not only on this issue but on any issue. Previous presidents have also made that promise, including, by the way, President Obama himself in the 2008 election campaign. And then when they got into office, they were told by the experts - by the State Department, by the CIA - that this would be a very dangerous move, that it could cause violence among Palestinians, that it could disrupt relations with the Arab world.

Now, you are assuming that when President Trump enters office he will hear the same thing. But even if he does, it doesn't mean that he will necessarily abide by that advice. And so probably, given Trump's unique nature - we'll put it that way - and his appointment of an ambassador who openly supports the movement of the embassy, then I think there's an expectation that it's now or never, meaning that if Trump - Trump is probably the president most likely to make the move, even though it might turn - it might backfire on us all.

WERTHEIMER: And finally, very briefly, Iran. Does the Israeli political and military establishment really want Donald Trump to tear up the agreement on the nuclear deal with Iran?

SHALEV: First of all, on this issue, as in most other issues, there's - you know, there's various - there's different - differing opinions and all sorts of various nuances in those opinions. I think most of the security establishment looks at the Iran deal as a done deal, and therefore it does not want the deal to be torn up or anything. The prime minister...

WERTHEIMER: OK.

SHALEV: ...I think is a bit more hawkish on that.

WERTHEIMER: We're going to have to - we're going to have to stop you, but thank you so much. Columnist Chemi Shalev. He reached us on Skype. He writes for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Thank you.

SHALEV: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.