Trump’s Triumphs Demolish Netanyahu’s Fortress GOP Strategy

The N.Y. tycoon is decimating the three legs of blanket Republican support for Israel: Evangelicals, Jews and interventionist hawks.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves goodbye to supporters after a campaign stop, Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Portland, Maine.AP

In their Super Tuesday speeches, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio tried to use an Israel hammer to bash Donald Trump. Cruz sneeringly lambasted him for saying he would remain “neutral” while Rubio trounced Trump for trying to stay “impartial”, as his audience booed accordingly. And Trump? Trump was racking up victories, amassing delegates and laughing all the way to the top of the Republican presidential field.

In this way, the New York billionaire is decimating the conventional wisdom, one of many, that in 2016, total and unconditional support for Israel is a prerequisite for any aspiring GOP candidate wishing to run for president; that such a pledge of allegiance to Israel, in general, and to Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, is a threshold requirement for gaining the support of Evangelicals, who set the tone during primary season; and that the flow of sympathy for Israel from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans is inevitable, perhaps even desirable, and in any case unstoppable.

But exactly a year after Netanyahu took this logic to its extreme and stood on the podium of Congress as Leader of the Republican opposition to President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the conception is falling apart. The notion that the Republican Party is a monolithic bastion of support that will withstand the test of time is evaporating. The belief that any Republican president who will follow Obama will be better for Israel is eroding with each passing day. Faced with the Trump phenomenon, Netanyahu’s Fortress GOP strategy is collapsing like a house of cards.

And it doesn’t really make that much difference whether Trump is a “phony” who is pulling the wool over the GOP’s innocent eyes, as former presidential contender Mitt Romney asserted in his astonishingly harsh speech on Thursday, or whether Trump has simply exposed the dark subterranean streams of jingoism and prejudice and resentment of Jews that were there all along. If Trump is the Republican candidate, never mind if he’s elected president, Israel’s place in American politics and possibly around the world will be put in question. But if Romney’s scary portrayal of Trump is even half true, that should be the least of our worries.


In the outgoing dogmatic GOP, Trump’s equivocations would have earned him a place in the all-time rogues gallery of Enemies of the Jewish People, somewhere between Obama and Father Coughlin. Today, Evangelicals shrug them off and continue to vote for Trump, as they did this week in Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. 

Every time Cruz and Rubio try to hit Trump over the head with an Israel club and nothing happens, it is Israel’s weakness that is exposed. Every time Trump wins a party primary without challenge from his supporters, another nail is driven into the coffin of the unshakeable alliance between Israel and America’s deep right. 

And it’s not as if Trump is really anti-Israel; hardly. Like in most other complex policy issues on which he has spoken, Trump is mainly incoherent, improvising as he goes along, shooting from the lip, saying one thing one day and the opposite the next. He is “totally a friend” of Israel, Obama is "the most horrible president ever” for Israel, and the Iran deal is a joke. But Trump refuses to acknowledge United Jerusalem, wants to remain “neutral” so that he can broker a peace deal with the Palestinians, which is a challenge worthy of a master dealmaker like him. If he fails, he’s already made clear, Israel will be to blame.

Trump not only diverts the Republican leadership from uniform automatic support for Netanyahu, he is destroying the internal coalition that was the lynchpin of the party’s strong pro-Israel stance. Evangelical support for Trump has already sparked an internal rupture, which has some experts declaring the death of America’s Religious Right. Evangelical leaders and many of their supporters in the media are heartbroken that so many Believers are flocking after the thrice married, dirty-talking reality star. They are less perturbed by his deviation from the strict pro-Israel party line, however, and more by the sinful ways for which he has not asked forgiveness.

If Trump becomes their candidate, the GOP will lose its most hawkish, most neoconservative and most pro-Israel secular elements as well. They are repelled not only by his indecipherable positions on Israel but also by his harsh criticism of George Bush and the Iraq War, his undisguised adulation of dictators for Vladimir Putin to Bashar Assad, his all round belligerence and his neo-isolationist vision of making America great again within its hermetically sealed walls. “As president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world” according to public letter signed by 50 GOP national security stalwarts, many of them known for their pro-Israel positions. “We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.”

The third leg of the GOP’s pro-Israel array that Trump is eviscerating are the Jews. Although Sheldon Adelson’s ongoing silence has caused some people to suspect he will end up supporting Trump, other big time Jewish donors, including hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, have placed their money on his currently losing rivals. And the Republican hope that 2016 will finally see the long awaited migration of Jews disappointed by Obama to the GOP is dashed once again. Trump hardly stands a chance of garnering 30% of the Jewish vote, as Romney did in 2012, never mind the 40% that Rubio might reasonably be expected to receive. He’s more likely to revert the GOP’s Jewish vote in the direction of the 11% that George Bush Sr. got in 1992, or the 10% that Barry Goldwater received in 1964.

But the Jews won’t be fleeing Trump because of his policies towards Israel or because he refuses to repeat Cruz and Rubio’s inane pledge to tear the Iranian nuclear deal apart on their first day in office. The Jews won’t abandon Trump because he’s married for the third time, or because he went bankrupt four times, or because he uses dirty words whenever he can. They certainly won’t desert Trump because of his positions on abortion, health care or separation of church and state, which are more aligned with theirs than Cruz’s, Rubio’s or Kasich’s.

The Jews will run away from Trump because he scares them. Because his demagoguery is ominous, his willingness to slash and burn anyone standing in his way is disturbing, his tendency to incite his supporters against other ethnic groups from rapist Mexicans to terrorist Muslims, is a source of deep anxiety. Beneath the great wave of popular support for Trump one can make out with increasing clarity the dark undercurrents of rage and resentment and xenophobia that is often seen morphing into White supremacism and abhorrence of African Americans and then, on the outskirts, bad old hatred of the Jews. The allusions to Germany in the 1930’s are absurd, no doubt, but nonetheless surfacing with ever-increasing frequency.

Trump’s dithering resistance to a clear and unequivocal condemnation of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan set the alarm bells ringing. Add to that the disturbing incidents in which African Americans are brutally manhandled at Trump events, in some cases by American Nazis who laud Trump for “resisting Jewish money.” Grotesquely, that was the connection made this week between Duke, who hates Jews and blacks, and Louis Farrakhan, who loathes Jews and whites.

The Trump phenomenon reinforces the long held claim that part of the alliance of shared values between Israel and the American extreme right is based on a warped and racist view of Israel as a forward post of white civilization against the darker barbarians at the gate. Israelis who have cast themselves as Republicans have taken scant interest in the domestic side of the GOP, with which some of them might even agree. Many of them will continue to view Trump as a desirable heir to Muslim Obama and alternative to a radical Hillary Clinton. Others will console themselves with the thought that once elected, Trump will become another man. Still others will yearn for his victory, if only to confound Netanyahu and satisfy their own Schadenfreude.

But most people, possibly in Israel and definitely around the world, will prudently pray for the GOP to get rid of Trump, and failing that, for Clinton or Bernie Sanders to defeat him in November. At the same time, they would do well to undo Netanyahu’s frivolous decision to put all of Israel’s eggs in the GOP basket, which is unraveling in front of our very eyes.