Analysis

The Israeli Right's Love Affair With Trump Goes From Ecstasy to Agony

On the eve of his historic visit, the Russian intelligence scandal proves the president’s problematic personality will burn Israel too

U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One as he departs from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, U.S. May 17, 2017.
KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

Israel is doing its best to contain the fallout from Donald Trump’s reported faux pas of revealing its innermost intelligence secrets to the Russians. If it had been Barack Obama, right-wing Israeli politicians would be foaming at the mouth, but given that it’s Trump, they’re doing their best to stay silent. Relations are great and will continue to be great, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman pledged.

Israel has no interest in venting its anger in public. Relations with the U.S. in general and intelligence collaboration in particular are too precious. The intelligence agencies will decide how to proceed from here and how to ensure that their information – and agents, if press reports are credible – is protected from the Donald Trump's leaky mouth, but they will try to do so far away from the headlines. The president’s visit to Israel will start on Monday and the last thing Benjamin Netanyahu wants or needs now is a public spat that will put more strain on an already tense occasion.

Trump’s visit, in fact, went sour before it started. Spats over his speech at Masada, since cancelled, as well as quarrels over the Western Wall, back and forths about moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and, of course, the eruption of the intelligence scandal have already marred what was once slated to be a triumphant tour de force for both sides. Now, Israel will be happy if Trump comes and goes without creating another major headache.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course. Although Trump was never anyone’s original cup of tea – you will recall, because he certainly hasn’t forgotten, Trump’s cancellation of a campaign trip to Israel after Netanyahu criticized his proposed Muslim ban - but things changed once he began to lead the GOP race and became its presumptive candidate. Netanyahu even gave Trump a boost by meeting him in New York two months before the elections despite the displeasure voiced by Hillary Clinton. Then Sheldon Adelson started to warm to Trump and Ambassador Ron Dermer became the unofficial go-between even before the votes were counted. Most Israelis still expected Clinton to win, but Netanyahu had hedged his bets well.

Trump’s election, against all odds, fired up the imagination of the Israeli right. This was the redemption they had been waiting for, after eight lean years with Obama. Israeli right-wingers chose to overlook Trump’s questionable statements at the start of the campaign, including his ambition to achieve the “ultimate deal,” his hints that Israel was responsible for the absence of peace, his refusal to endorse an undivided Jerusalem and his curious slip of the tongue that Israel would have to reimburse the U.S. for the foreign aid it had received. They preferred to accentuate the positive policies Trump adopted later in the campaign when he wanted to try and steal Jewish votes from Clinton. Trump would move the embassy, renounce the two-state solution and confront Iran over the nuclear deal, they thought. Israel, they rejoiced, has finally hit the jackpot.

Throughout this time, the Israeli right ignored the fact that so many of its staunchest American supporters, especially neoconservatives, were Never-Trumpers. They turned a blind eye to Trump’s no-holds-barred belligerence during the election campaign as well as myriad allegations and reports of his arrogance, ignorance, inability to concentrate and overall erratic personality. These must all be exaggerations and fabrications, they said, of the leftist media, in Israel and the U.S. alike. We’ve suffered from them ourselves, they told themselves. In any case, many of Trump’s alleged faults seemed less objectionable from Israel, a country not renowned for good manners or dainty etiquette. Trump, as far the right was concerned, not only talked the talk but he also walked the walk. The fact that he threw political correctness out the window and did not hesitate to insult Muslims and brand them as inherently suspect endeared him even more to his right wing Israeli fans.

But the heartbreak began almost immediately. Meetings with Jordan's King Abdullah and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed dissuaded Trump from acting quickly to keep his campaign promises on Jerusalem. His press conference with Netanyahu in February made it clear that while he wasn’t as bothered as Obama had been by Jewish settlements, Israel would not have the free hand right-wingers had fantasized about. Then Jason Greenblatt came to the region sounding like Dennis Ross and Ambassador David Friedman testified in Congress as if he was Martin Indyk. Trump, the headlines said, is preparing an ambitious peace plan that will include the regional elements that Israel had always sought but would nonetheless pivot around the Palestinians, as the Israeli right had always feared.

Still, Netanyahu and his ministers were willing to look on the positive side. Unlike Obama, Trump did not reprimand Israel for each house it built in the West Bank nor did he care about the Israeli coalition’s ongoing crackdown on dissent. Trump had bombed Syria, was talking tough on Iran and could very well take on North Korea. Given that most Israelis are convinced that any peace process will eventually run aground because of Palestinian rejectionism, there wasn’t all that much to worry about. Trump will come to Israel, say nice things, participate in countless photo ops and generally have a good time, if things went according to plan.

Preparations for the visit, however, revealed the first cracks in this rosy picture. Trump’s advance team seemed just as amateurish and erratic as their boss. More importantly, it soon became clear that Trump was more interested in using his Israel visit as backdrop for his own aggrandizement rather than an opportunity to upgrade relations. Trump’s team insisted that his two main events, at Masada and the Western Wall, be solo performances. Netanyahu was not welcome, they said. Adding insult to injury, the White House couldn’t even bring itself to recognize the Western Wall’s affinity to Israel, as if they were the same lefty pinko Palestinian sympathizers that Israel had thought were gone forever.

The intelligence scandal, the chumminess with the Russians and the realization that Trump may have compromised an Israeli asset and indirectly conveyed Israel’s closely-guarded secrets to Iran and Hezbollah, finally brought everything together. Suddenly the president’s creepy connections to the Kremlin, his lack of discipline and refusal to learn, his capriciousness, impulsiveness and yearning for approval, his shiftiness and his dishonesty and his lack of loyalty to supporters and allies all came home to roost. Israel was burned by the traits that it had preferred to disregard, as if they were detached from the staunchly pro-Israeli Trump of their dreams. The liberal media’s portrayal of Trump, it now seems, were not as inaccurate as they had hoped.

Netanyahu and his colleagues will still try to fete Trump as if nothing has changed. They will praise his leadership, laud his resoluteness, express confidence in his policies and give thanks for his steadfast support. Trump might even be more gracious, given his need to atone for his Russian sin. The declarations, however, will ring hollow. They will be overshadowed not only by the skepticism and apprehension that have now been injected into the Israeli right’s attitude but by the gathering clouds of investigations and impeachment that will henceforth hang over the president’s head. No one will mention their shattered dreams or broken hearts, of course, but some right-wingers are already thinking ahead. Many of them will soon start to pine for Mike Pence. Now there’s a president, they will tell themselves, who is the answer to our prayers.