As U.S. President Donald Trump’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and grotesque, untethered to decency or truth, his right-wing supporters in Israel and the American Jewish community are getting a little nervous.
At times, the president of the United States seems, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, to be simply "bonkers." The latest round of Trump outrages, involving the incarceration of infants and toddlers, has left even his most hard-core backers wondering if the president’s megalomania has obliterated his grasp of reality.
Nonetheless, right-wing Jews in Israel and America, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seem prepared to overlook Mr. Trump’s deficiencies. Yes, they acknowledge off the record, the president is crude and crass. Yes, he engages in regular ridicule of "others" - Muslims, Mexicans, Arabs, Europeans, Hispanics, and especially, immigrants. Yes, he has unleashed popular passions that threaten liberty and give comfort to bigots and anti-Semites.
But never mind, because Trump is a friend of Israel. He has put the Palestinians in their place. He moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And above all, he pulled America out of the hated Iran deal, removing the threat that this deal posed to Israel’s very existence.
For those who are perplexed by Jewish attitudes toward Trump, Iran is the key to the puzzle. How can Israel, and so many Jews, stand behind a fanatic bully like Trump? The answer is that, in some respects, it is precisely due to his unrestrained temperament.
Nehemia Shtrasler made this argument in Haaretz. Both America and Israel, he wrote, are threatened by evil terrorist regimes like Iran and North Korea. And President Trump recognized what his predecessor U.S. President Barack Obama could not see: that a language of threats and force is the only way to contend with the tyrants in our dangerous world.
Why did Kim Jong Un promise to "denuclearize"? According to Shtrasler, because the American president imposed sanctions and threatened to annihilate Kim’s country, causing him to change his strategy. And the same threatening, tough-guy approach will soon work with Iran, which is already feeling the pressure of newly-imposed American sanctions.
And so, the thinking goes, Trump may be an imperfect, inexperienced, shoot-from-the-hip president. But as Netanyahu is always reminding us, this president has Israel’s back. And in scrapping the nuclear agreement with Iran, we are told, he has saved the Jewish state.
The problem with this argument is that it is wrong.
To Nehemia Shtrasler and Trump supporters everywhere, I suggest that they consider the following: Trump is a betrayer. In his non-stop efforts to promote himself and his very narrow view of American interests, he has betrayed virtually every country friendly to America and every alliance of which America is a part. He has betrayed NATO and the European Union. He has betrayed Britain and Canada. He has betrayed Japan and South Korea.
And Israel and the Jewish people are not exempt. When it comes to Iran, they too will be betrayed.
Let us look at the facts.
Shtrasler sees in Trump’s actions a principled toughness against America’s enemies. But Trump has few real principles other than self-advancement and political survival. And while it is true that the Iran nuclear agreement is deeply flawed, Trump’s campaign promise to withdraw from it was not rooted in commitment to Israel’s welfare. In fact, Israel played virtually no role in Trump’s political life prior to the election.
Trump opposed the deal for a variety of reasons: He loves being a foreign policy maverick, the deal was identified with Obama, and it was unpopular with Evangelical Christian leaders. And since most Americans didn’t much care about it, abandoning it was relatively risk free.
But this rationale hardly means that the president has a plan for what to do now, or that Israel will end up better off than it was before. In fact, the opposite is almost certainly true.
Trump and administration officials claim that American sanctions at a time of economic uncertainty in Iran will force the Iranians back to the negotiating table to make a "better deal." Such a scenario is not impossible.
But another alternative, more likely in many ways, is that rigorously enforced sanctions will push the Iranians to renounce the agreement themselves and resume nuclear enrichment activity. As Amos Yadlin and Ari Heistein point out in The Atlantic, Iran will choose negotiations over bomb building only if there is "the credible threat of a military strike."
And while many in Israel and the Jewish community do not want to admit it, such a threat simply does not exist.
President Trump loves to talk tough. He loves to shock and disrupt, and to bully and brag. But bullies, as we know, are not strong; they are weak. When confrontations come, they back away. And to the extent that Trump’s foreign policy has a direction at all, it is to withdraw from overseas commitments and to extricate America from engagement abroad.
Stephen Sestanovich argues correctly, also in The Atlantic, that Trump is not a simple isolationist. He has too big an ego for that. He is not opposed to a measure of activism if the cost is small and if he can make himself appear strong, decisive, and, for example, a terrorist fighter. Nonetheless, while Trump does not have a consistent foreign policy, certain sentiments and instincts dominate his world view - and always have. And the most important of these is resistance to significant American military involvement.
What all this means is that if Iran returns to nuclear enrichment, America will not act militarily. Trump’s view is that trade wars are one thing, but fighting wars are costly, messy, and unpopular. Foreign conflicts are to be avoided, period. And to his own deep reservations must be added his Putin obsession. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, we should remember, values his relationship with Iran and its leaders. That Trump would bomb Iran against Putin’s wishes is unthinkable.
Obviously, no one wants America to go to war. And it would be far better to resolve America’s problems with Iran in peaceful ways. But the point is that Trump pulled out of the Iran deal without having a Plan B, or for that matter, even a Plan A. And if Iran decides to race to nuclear capability, a real possibility, the country that will be most threatened is Israel.
Trump, in other words, is not a confronter of tyrants. He is an appeaser of tyrants, intent on unraveling America’s commitments abroad. And Israel is likely to pay the price.
Yadlin and Heistein recognize this possibility, and their proposal is that Israel should be prepared to act alone, with an American "green light." But as they note, it would be essential for Israel to conduct a surgical strike and then find a way to avoid further escalation.
The problem, of course, is that it is not at all clear that a surgical strike would be sufficient to knock out Iran’s nuclear capacity; most American experts think it would not. And following an Israeli attack on Iran, escalation of the conflict is not only possible but likely.
Bottom line? If the result of President Trump’s actions is that Iran does not make a deal but opts to obtain the bomb, Israel will be exposed as it has never been before. Netanyahu’s fawning over Trump will have been for naught. Israel will have been betrayed.
Netanyahu has always expected that he will be remembered by history for his role in dealing with Iran. He will be. But that role may be different than the one he anticipated.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie
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