Trump and the Absurdity of America’s Israel Debate

He pretends to care about Israel, and the American Jewish Establishment pretends that he’s a respectable candidate for president.

Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2016.
Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2016. Saul Loeb, AFP

Last month, with the New York presidential primary only days away, a group of Jewish activists and journalists came to see Donald Trump in his office. Trump surveyed the group and called in reinforcements. “Maybe I can get Jason Greenblatt down here,” he mused. “Jason is a person that has been so good, he’s a lawyer, he’s so incredible and he’s Orthodox.” Turning to campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Trump added, “And you know who else? David Cohen.” Greenblatt is Trump’s general counsel. Cohen is his executive vice-president. 

As the Jewish Telegraph Agency’s Uriel Heilman observed, “It was an exchange reminiscent of a memorable scene in the first episode of ‘Mad Men,’ in which the heads of the 1950s Madison Avenue advertising agency try to figure out if they have any token Jewish employees to be in the room for a meeting with a potential Jewish client. The agency ends up digging up a Jewish guy from the mailroom.” 

When the journalists asked about West Bank settlements, Trump handed off the question to Greenblatt, who responded that the settlements “need to stay there.” When asked what term he uses to describe the West Bank, Trump turned to Greenblatt again, who said he didn’t like the phrase “occupied territories.”    

Asked later where he gets his information on Israel, Greenblatt, a real estate attorney from Teaneck, New Jersey, said he reads materials sent out by AIPAC and listens to a weekly radio program featuring Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Greenblatt also said he sometimes talks to people in the Israeli government. He doesn’t know any Palestinians. 

According to Trump, Greenblatt is one of his two main Israel advisers. The other is a bankruptcy lawyer who has represented Trump named David M. Friedman. Friedman serves as President of American Friends of Bet El settlement. In columns on the pro-settler website Arutz Sheva, he has accused President Obama of “blatant anti-Semitism” and suggested that unless Palestinian citizens of Israel decide “to support the state,” Israel should reconsider its policy of “bestowing upon them the benefits of citizenship.” In a column last July, he compared J Street to “Kapos during the Nazi regime.”  

It all makes perfect sense. Donald Trump is not a subtle man. Whatever other politicians do, he does cruder and stupider. Last year, he joined a field of Republican candidates who were promising to crack down on illegal immigration. So Trump upped the ante: He said he’d make Mexico pay for a wall. His GOP opponents came out against admitting Syrian refugees into the United States. Trump called for banning Muslims altogether. His GOP opponents said they’d get tough on ISIS. Trump called for killing the family members of terrorists

So it is with Israel. Trump realizes that running for president requires convincing the American Jewish establishment that he will give the Israeli government near unconditional support. Other candidates dress this up in high-minded language about how Israel shares America’s democratic values and serves as a vital ally in the struggle against terrorism. Trump’s approach is more blunt: You Jews want to know I’m pro-Israel? Here are Greenblatt, Friedman and Cohen. They all work for me. They’re all Jews. They’ll tell you whatever you want to hear. If they don’t, just let me know. I can easily find more.

It’s kind of refreshing. Most campaign discussions of Israel are a farce. Trump is just admitting it. At a recent J Street event, Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which raises money for Democratic women candidates, explained how, when she served as finance director for congressional candidates, she developed their positions on Israel:

“Before you went to the Jewish community [to raise money], you had a conversation with the lead AIPAC person in your state and they made it clear that you needed a paper on Israel. And so you called all your friends who already had a paper on Israel that was designed by AIPAC - and we made that your paper. This was before there was a campaign manager, a policy director or a field director because you have got to raise money before you do all of that. I have written more Israel papers that you can imagine. I am from Montana. I barely knew where Israel was until I looked at a map, and the poor campaign manager would come in, or the policy director, and I’d be like, ‘Here is your paper on Israel. This is our policy.’ That means that these candidates who were farmers, school teachers, or business women, ended up having an Israel position without having any significant conversations with anybody…when I look back at it, it’s shocking.”   

But it doesn’t shock Donald Trump. Trump, after all, does deals. And when it comes to Israel, the deal is clear: He tells the American Jewish establishment what it wants to hear. In return, the American Jewish establishment treats him like a respectable presidential candidate. It does so even though he’s sowing hate against America’s most vulnerable religious minority, and even though he barely pretends to know anything about the Jewish state, let alone the Palestinians.

Europe and the United Nations keep trying to undermine America’s monopoly over Israeli-Palestinian relations. How dare they? If elected, Donald Trump — aided by Greenblatt, Friedman and Cohen — will have things well in hand.