Opinion |

Will Israel Ever Recover Its Standing in a post-Trump America?

Netanyahu's sycophancy towards Trump has squandered much of what remains of bipartisan support for Israel. But with the president sinking, will Israel sink with him?

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office September 11, 2018 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office September 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. Credit: AFP
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

President Donald Trump’s soul-slaying narcissism may finally be catching up with him. Our president and his gangster politics are more unpopular than ever.

But lovers of Israel beware: There is no way that what is happening is good for Israel. 

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According to just-released numbers, the president’s approval ratings have dropped precipitously in eight major polls. As summarized in Vox, his average approval rating is now 38 percent, a drop of 3 points from his previous average.

The precise reason for the new numbers is unclear. Perhaps it is the Michael Cohen's guilty plea on financial fraud charges. Perhaps it is the White House chaos described by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. Or perhaps it is simply the cumulative effect of the rampant sleaze, sexual high jinks, and unapologetic greed that characterize the Trump administration and its leader. 

But whatever the reason, the stink is everywhere, and Americans are turning away in droves from their crude and ignorant president.

And Israel’s problem is that she has become the president’s darling child. Normally, of course, the affection of an American president is not a problem; it is a blessing. And Trump, despite the politics of disdain that he usually practices with such relish, has found a place in his heart for the Jewish state. 

First and foremost, he has moved the American embassy to Jerusalem.  He has also offered a vigorous defense of Israel in the United Nations.  And more recently, he has called on the UN to redefine which Palestinians have a right to refugee status. 

All of these policies were welcome and right. 

How do we explain the fact that a President who lacks a coherent geopolitical agenda has come to love the state of the Jews and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu? We cannot know for certain, just as we cannot know for certain why the president has such admiration for Russia and Vladimir Putin.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on September 12, 2018Credit: AFP

For some, Trump’s commitment to Israel is simply another example of the jungle rot that he has inflicted on American society. In this view, Trump’s support for Israel is not principled foreign policy at all. It is, rather, Trumpian self-centeredness, intended solely to assure Evangelical backing for his reelection. 

Others see genuine respect for Israel in the Trump policy. And still others see a mixture of motives, and suggest that the hubristic Trump, who loves to shake things up, delights in a foreign policy of disruption in the Middle East.

But whatever the motives, Israelis across the political spectrum believe that Trump loves them, and they love him back. Following the lead of Prime Minister Netanyahu, they see the strategic position of their country dramatically improved under President Trump. 

The Obama administration was viewed as weak, hesitant, and indecisive, and Israelis were convinced that President Obama did not understand the region. And even if President Trump lacks an overarching vision of America’s role in the world, Israelis are convinced that in a part of the world where power is the only currency, Trump speaks the language of power and force.

The problem with this thinking is that it is a misreading, by Bibi Netanyahu and Israelis of all stripes, of Trump and of America. It is also a flawed reading of what is happening in their own neighborhood.  Without a change of direction, the result could be disaster, both strategic and political.

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The strategic disaster is that the American administration is quick to threaten wars but unlikely to actually start them. Donald Trump is not a disciple of power politics. He is a narrow nationalist with a measure of charisma and a strutting arrogance, but no real readiness to confront his enemies or fight for his country’s interests. 

Part of the reason that Trump’s poll numbers are down is that Americans have seen through the charade. Their president, they now understand, is a man of amoral appetites, tribal urges, and endless bluster and boasting, who has surrounded himself for decades with criminals and ne'er-do-wells. They have begun to realize that there is no "there" there, and that they simply cannot count on him in either the domestic or the foreign policy realm. 

US President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives in Johnstown, Penn. with First Lady Melania Trump, on September 11, 2018 en route to Shanksville, Penn.Credit: AFP

Let us take two examples of American foreign policy impotence and incompetence that relate to Israel. First, as Michael Doran noted in a recent lecture, Trump has seriously overestimated Russia’s willingness or ability to restrain Iran in Syria - where it poses a serious threat to Israeli and American interests. 

Second, while Trump was right to demand that the UN cap the number of Palestinian refugees, he was wrong to drastically cut social and economic aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. As Max Boot wrote in the Washington Post, these cuts will likely lead to a third intifada, a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian Authority, or a massive humanitarian crisis for which Israel will ultimately be responsible. Why in heaven’s name is Bibi applauding the American move?

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The political disaster that Israel faces is no less frightening.

It is one thing to be the favorite child of a strong president who enjoys the backing of a united Congress. It is quite another matter to be the closest ally of a sinking president battling a divided Congress - a president with so little legitimacy that he is seen by the opposition party as a desperate mob boss engaged in ongoing attempts to obstruct justice and avoid indictment.

In other words, Bibi Netanyahu made a very bad bet. He put all of Israel’s eggs in one basket- a classic and disastrous political error. And in doing so, he allowed Israel to get caught up in the hyper-partisanship that now divides Republicans from Democrats in America.    

Seeing Trump as Israel’s savior, Bibi became the president’s cheerleader, applauding his every move and distancing himself, subtly but noticeably, from his political opponents.

The result: He has allowed Israel to become, in the eyes of most Americans, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party. And in the process, he has undermined the bipartisan support that Israel has enjoyed in America for half a century.

Visitors walk past a flower bed arranged in the colors of the 'Stars and Stripes' American flag on the road leading to the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, Israel. May 13, 2018Credit: Bloomberg

No one knows what will happen, of course. Perhaps Trump’s poll numbers will go up. Or perhaps they will go down, and in total desperation he will start defending himself in ways that we right now cannot even imagine. 

But America’s internal politics are beyond Israel’s control. And that is the point, and the lesson for Israel.

While leaving Americans to decide their political fate, what Netanyahu must do is moderate his language and his actions. He must speak instead the language of mainstream America, emphasizing Israel’s desire for peace and her commitment to democracy. And while retaining whatever connections are necessary to the president and the administration, he must restore his ties to Democrats and the American public.

As Dennis Ross stated recently, "There will be a post-Trump America." And to prepare for that time, he noted, Netanyahu must reach out to Democrats and regain their full support, making commitment to Israel part of the American consensus once again.

Ross is right. Israel must, of course, be respectful of Trump, who remains president. But the era of Bibi’s sycophancy must come to an end before it is too late.

Trump, a sinister president with a soft spot for Israel, may be sinking. But Israel, a cause for all Americans, must not be permitted to sink along with him.

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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