Analysis

Israel’s Enthusiastic Embrace of President Trump - and Why It Might Be Dangerous

We're used to leaders who attack the media, feel like victims, lie through their teeth and pay no price for corruption.

A man takes a picture of a giant banner on a building congratulating U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in Jerusalem, January 20, 2017.
AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

I met some worried American Jewish acquaintances at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv this week. They seemed troubled. These are people who visit Israel frequently, who know it well and support it, who are well acquainted with the political situation and who understand, or at least thought they did, the local mood. Nonetheless, they were astonished by the intensity of support for Donald Trump they encountered, in random conversations and in meetings with high officials. Israelis love Trump, they said, way more than Americans. 

I told them that in the eyes of many Israelis, Trump’s main advantage is that he’s not Obama. The new president is a supporter of Israel, supposedly, and a backer of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, allegedly. He won’t pressure Israel, reportedly, and will come to our aid in time of need, or so they say. He also seems to distrust if not hate Muslims, which, for many Israelis, is always a sign of sound judgment. Trump is erecting a wall with Mexico? Good for him, we have one too. He is restricting entry of Muslims and casting them all as potential terrorists? Great, someone finally came to their senses. Trump is threatening to back out of international organizations, such as the United Nations, that have accepted the Palestinians or the PLO as full members? What more could we ask for? Did the messiah come and no one bothered to inform us? 

Israelis are more accustomed than other people to politicians whose limited vocabulary stands in inverse proportion to the intensity of the insults they hurl at rivals, which is par for the course on Israeli talk shows on television and in debates in Knesset committees. Trump’s obsession with the media, his hysterical gripes about not getting respect and his insane sensitivity to what he perceives as personal slights are all terra cognita for anyone who has lived with Netanyahu as prime minister for so long. The same is true of Trump’s incomprehensible combination of a l’état c’est moi, only-I-can-save-you attitude and his pathetic sense of eternal victimhood. The same mix was on vivid display in Netanyahu’s extraordinary speech in the Knesset this week about his own problems with the police, in which he said he did nothing wrong and that everyone, from the opposition through the media to the legal authorities, was conspiring against him.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who spoke at the INSS conference, had a more expansive reasoning for supporting Trump. She doesn’t limit herself to some provincial local-patriot attitude of what’s good or bad for the Jews and anecdotal evidence of similarities between the U.S. president and the Israeli prime minister. Shaked presented a comprehensive ideological framework that connects her Israel to Trump’s America and beyond. Unlike many commentators, who are finding it hard to locate an overarching theme for Trump’s antics, Shaked identifies him with a defined worldview that got him elected, will accompany his presidency and will serve Israel’s best interests.

Israel, Shaked said, should be part of the global trend that includes Trump’s election, Britain’s Brexit, the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, the increasing restrictions on movement of refugees and more. “One of the common threads connecting these events is the return of nations to the roots of their national identity in contrast to elites that champion globalization and multiculturalism,” Shaked noted, admiringly. It’s but a natural reaction, she said, to Islamic terror and mass migration. “The nations of the world are choosing to defend themselves, their identity and their nationalism. We should do the same,” she asserted.

In an article in Foreign Policy, Harvard professor Stephen Walt, the renowned international relations neo-realist, had a much harder time piecing together a coherent worldview that can be ascribed to Trump: “America’s New President is not a Rational Player,” was its title. If one must find a common thread in the new administration’s approach, Walt wrote: “Trump and some of his advisors (most notably Stephen Bannon) may be operating from a broad, Huntingtonian 'clash of civilizations' framework that informs both their aversion to multiculturalism at home and their identification of friends and foes abroad. In this essentially cultural, borderline racialist worldview, the (mostly white) Judeo-Christian world is under siege from various 'other' forces, especially Muslims. From this perspective, the ideal allies are not liberals who prize tolerance, diversity, and an open society, but rather hard-core blood-and-soil nationalists who like walls, borders, strong leaders, the suppression or marginalization of anyone who’s different and the promotion of a narrow and fairly traditional set of cultural values.” Shaked, her party Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) and most of Israel's right wing ruling coalition could easily feel at home inside Walt’s parameters.

For these reasons, Trump’s White House won’t necessarily reject the proposal put forth at the conference by Shaked’s colleague, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who wants Israel to annex Area C in the West Bank, in which Jewish settlements are located and the IDF maintains security control, and to give the Palestinians “autonomy on steroids,” as he put it, in the remaining Areas A and B, which are mostly isolated one from the other. Apartheid South Africa tried a similar scheme, establishing sham quasi-states, dubbed Bantustans, which were presented to the world as independence for blacks but were actually meant to strip them of their South African citizenship and thus neutralize the demographic threat to the white majority.  Bennett will certainly find a sympathetic ear to his ideas in Trump’s ambassador-designate David Friedman who proposed chucking out the silly concept of a two-state solution and improving the economic situation of the Palestinian middle class instead, which wasn’t interested in independence anyway.

I suspect, though, that Trump and his advisers may be more attracted by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s ideas on ceding large chunks of Israeli territory, with their Arab populations in tow, in exchange for the West Bank settlement blocs that Israel seeks to annex for itself. For someone who thinks the whole word is a deal and its captains are those who have mastered the art of a deal, the ability to offer the Palestinians prime real estate inside the 1967 Green Line could be tempting for Trump. The new administration is also unlikely to lose much sleep over the inconvenient consequence of Lieberman’s offer, which could deprive hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs of their current Israeli citizenship. It might not be long; after all, before Trump decides to rescind the citizenship of Muslims in America either, on the pretext that they entered the country fraudulently.

My American Jewish friends, however, were less concerned with the fate of Israeli Arabs than that of American Jews. They were dumbfounded, they said, by the complete lack of response in Israel to the manifestations of anti-Semitism that increased dramatically after Trump announced his intention to run for the presidency in June 2015. Netanyahu, they noted, hadn’t said a word. I spared them my assessment that Trump, Netanyahu and their respective close confidantes probably share the same derision towards leftist, knee-jerk liberal American Jews as well as the amazement that Jews continue to vote for Democrats. One of my interlocutors noted that Shaked’s sentence about “return to the roots of national identity in contrast to elites that support globalization and multiculturalism” sounds like the kind of drivel one might find in most anti-Semitic publications. They also noted that in praising the rise of right-wing parties in Europe, Shaked didn’t seem bothered by the fact that while some of them might like Israel, most of them hate Jews, brazenly or latently.

But what puzzled my friends most of all was that Israelis seem unmoved by, if not completely ignorant of, Trump’s erratic and problematic behavior. In the U.S., concerns about his emotional handicaps and incompetence to handle the presidency have not abated since his inauguration, but on the contrary. Trump’s first extensive interview with ABC News, broadcast on Wednesday night, did nothing to allay the suspicion that the American Commander in Chief lives in his own La La Land: He insisted on maintaining that his inauguration crowd was bigger, he repeated his absurd claim about millions of illegal votes, all of which, rather miraculously, were cast for Hillary Clinton. He compared Chicago to Afghanistan, insisted that Mexico pay for his wall – an issue that’s rapidly developing into a full blown bilateral crisis – and refused to retract his insane statement that the U.S. erred in not seizing Iraqi oil during the Iraq War, but may still get a second chance. In his first interview, Vanity Fair noted, the president “rejected reality.”

I told my friends that Israelis have gotten used to disregarding their leaders’ baseless assertions and ignoring hair raising corruption scandals if their perpetrators succeed in remaining in power. The hair-raising suspicions about Netanyahu’s lawyer and the German submarine deal, the unbelievable back room wheeling and dealing with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes, the lavish gifts the prime minister received from Arnon Milchan, the absurd claim that the mufti convinced Hitler to carry out the final solution, the racist concoction that the Arabs were swarming in droves to the polling booths on election day or the reckless assertion that a terrorist wave of arson was responsible for the widespread forest fires two months ago? Netanyahu’s fans don’t care. As long as he sticks it to the media and the leftists, he remains their King of Israel.

By the same token, Trump isn’t releasing any tax returns, although he promised, hasn’t resolved conflict of interest, although he pledged, and is under a heavy cloud of suspicion because of his ties and perhaps allegiance to the Kremlin. Barack Obama’s birth certificate wasn’t forged, Ted Cruz’s father wasn’t a part of JFK’s assassination, global warming is not a Chinese conspiracy and Trump does not head the greatest political movement in history. What difference does it make at this point, to quote someone else, when he’s the one sitting in the Oval Office and calling the shots?

You’re playing with fire, my frustrated interlocutors warned, clearly despondent by now. The same message was conveyed inside the INSS conference auditorium by noted political scientist and brilliant thinker Walter Russell Mead, who warned Israel not to embrace Trump too strongly lest it is irrevocably stained in the eyes of American public opinion. Former U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk was bleaker by far: For the first time in my life, he said, I am concerned about the future of the Jewish people, in America and in Israel. The Jewish people, he explained, have prospered and thrived within the established Western order that has existed since the end of World War II. Trump is coming to the White House just as that order is under threat, for a variety of reasons, and he may bring the entire structure crashing down. But who cares if the Jewish people survive or don’t survive, I thought to myself, as long as Trump allows us to build a few more apartments in Beit El?