Opinion

Israelis Love Trump. They're Not the First to Fall for His False Promises

If he’s re-elected, Trump won’t need to appease eagerly pro-Israel evangelicals anymore. He’ll able to indulge his natural inclinations, which might not be quite as friendly toward the Jewish state

Trump
YURI GRIPAS/Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump enjoys support from more than two thirds of Israelis – a level of approval he could only hope for among Americans. 

He even joked recently (to a Jewish-American audience) that with that level of support - that he characteristically adjusted upwards to 98 percent - “if anything happens here, I’m taking a trip to Israel — I’ll be prime minister there.” 

There are understandable reasons (beyond being at a safe distance from the White House) why Israelis might feel this way. Yet in the long term, President Trump could cause serious damage to the Israeli-American relationship and to Israel’s national security.

It’s not hard to figure out why many Israelis are so fond of Donald Trump. His decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was entirely proper and long overdue. It’s the best piece of evidence supporting the claim that a disruptor from outside politics can accomplish things experienced politicians can’t. 

This article is part of a special project: 

Banner for Trump project

Click here for the rest: If Israel has to manage without its American strategic partner, it will still surviveHow Trump and Netanyahu split ways on Iran, pushing Israel to act alone | Trump is actually undermining America's relationship with Israel

He and his administration have also pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign against Israel’s chief antagonist, Iran. While the strategy itself has largely failed to curb the Iranian nuclear program or shrink its regional influence in the long term, in the short term an Iran under maximum pressure is less dangerous to Israel than an Iran flush with cash and diplomatically emboldened.

Those accomplishments, however, might be outweighed by further developments, especially if Trump survives impeachment and wins a second term. The president’s Israelophilia likely flows from his need to secure the support of conservative American evangelicals. 

This constituency makes up the heart of the Republican Party, and in 2016 its enthusiasm for then-candidate Trump was uncertain enough to be a factor in his selection of Mike Pence as his running mate. 

But after reelection, President Trump won’t need to appease evangelicals anymore. The GOP base will be as irrelevant to him as it was before he ever entered politics. And he has no lasting personal reasons for connecting with Evangelicals - that nakedly transactional relationship only dates to the summer of 2016, more or less.

He will then be able to indulge his natural inclinations, which might not be quite as friendly toward the Jewish state.

One indication about those unbridled tendencies is President Trump’s susceptibility to believing in conspiracy theories - including some about Jews. He’s often complimented Jewish audiences for living up to what he considers ‘positive’ ethnic stereotypes: they’re preternaturally loyal to one another over outsiders, cunning deal-brokers, and successful in business.

How far a leap is it to more blatantly nefarious stereotypes - that Jews operate as a secret cabal, exerting unseen influence over global events? It’s not a stretch to say such an idea might implant in the mind of a man who regularly decries a deep state conspiracy against him.

If President Trump’s opinion of Jews sours, will he distinguish between the Jewish people, some of whom live in their ancestral homeland and some who live in the diaspora, and the Jewish state? Considering he once told a group of Jewish Americans that Bibi Netanyahu was “your prime minister,” it seems unlikely he always grasps the difference.

None of that is to say that the president will become a full-throated anti-Semite. His Jewish grandchildren and his frequent (and borderline gleeful) denunciations of anti-Semitism in the Democratic Party will probably preclude that. But he has shown his ability to hold bigoted and harmful ideas about groups of people - and express them when it suits him. 

That began with his comments in his presidential bid announcement back in 2015, that Mexican immigrants were a combination of rapists and drug dealers - “And some, I assume, are good people,” his comments about blocking immigrants from “shithole” countries and that immigrants heading to the U.S. from Mexico “aren't people. These are animals."

Trump’s policy preferences are also clearly influenced by how openly the beneficiaries, as he sees it, of his perceived foreign policy largesse express their gratitude. In this case, too, he serially conflates U.S. Jews and Israel, remarking that in the light of his “pro-Israel” policies, Democratic-voting Jews are disloyal (to Israel) and that they aren’t grateful enough for what he’s done for the government in Jerusalem.

Even if the president's mind doesn’t change, his foreign policy (such as it is) could pose a risk to Israel. The most obvious way is by empowering thuggish authoritarians around the world. Throughout its history, the United States has sometimes had to deal kindly with repressive autocrats: Most states in the history of the world have had such governments. But the Trump administration is unique in its clear preference for such regimes - Russia, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey - over free, open democracies.

A responsible administration would be preparing for the rise of China and Russian aggression by strengthening the economic, social, and defense cooperation among free democracies from Taipei to Tel Aviv. Every free country in the world has a shared interest in defeating election interference and containing Beijing’s exportation of techno-authoritarianism.

Instead, the Trump administration has refused to acknowledge Russia’s campaign of election interference around the world, emboldening them and others to refine their methods through repetition. The Russians certainly sense the administration’s weakness, which all but guarantees other adversaries will, too. Iran figures more and more prominently in America’s electoral threat outlook. What are the odds the cyber weapons developed for use against the Great Satan won’t be directed at the Little Satan?

Israel is also in a precarious position as Chinese influence rises in Eurasia. China’s system of ubiquitous cameras, facial recognition, social credit scores is designed to keep tiny ruling elites - like the inner circles of the Chinese Communist Party - in power over large populations. By exporting this technology to other repressive regimes, China makes clients out of the world’s strongmen and despots. 

Israel has thrived as long as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan have depended on the United States for military aid. It’s less clear what Israel’s fate will be as the lone liberal democracy in the region when the House of Saud, the Hashemites, and Assad all depend on Beijing - and Moscow  - for their hold on power.

The return of Russia as a major power broker in the Middle East, encouraged most recently by the embarrassing American retreat from Syria, might not have as dire consequences for Israel as it will for the United States. Israel seemingly has a much more productive relationship with the Kremlin. 

But in the long term, Russia’s conception of international security isn’t as beneficial to Israel as America’s is. The American-led, rules-based international order protects small countries against larger ones and rewards free-market democracies. A world more amenable to the Kremlin's interests, in which larger powers dominate smaller ones in spheres of influence, would not be optimal for a country with a population smaller than Istanbul’s. 

It’s already clear that, despite the time and effort Netanyahu has invested in persuading Putin of Israel’s security needs regarding Syria, the Kremlin won’t make this a key consideration in its policymaking.

These international threats are all emerging as the bipartisan consensus supporting Israel is deteriorating in America. Not all of this is President Trump’s fault: Democrats have been trending less sympathetic to Israel for years. 

But President Trump’s treatment of the alliance (in tandem with Netanyahu) as a partisan and even personal issue has further alienated Democrats. His insistence that Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib not be allowed to visit Israel - with Netanyahu compliantly banning them - comes to mind. The next Democratic president may not feel a political or moral imperative to support Israel the way American presidents have with few interruptions since 1948.

Like any institution, the America-Israel alliance requires leadership by those who understand its purpose and support from those who trust those leaders. As with so many other institutions of American democracy, the relationship with Israel suffers from poor leadership and dissolving trust. Like so many other policies, it’s becoming partisan and polarized. An alliance that can only be counted upon when one party is in power (and even then on uncertain terms) isn’t much of an alliance at all. 

With paroxysms of interventionism and retrenchment, the United States will find it even more difficult to maintain influence in the Middle East, while simultaneously forcing Israel to act with more independence - or find new friends to hedge against a shaky ally.

There is always the chance that the pendulum of American public opinion will swing back the other way, and the post-Trump era will be a golden age for American alliances with embattled democracies. Hopefully by then it won’t be too late to make up for lost time.

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark. Twitter: @pennbarker