Opinion

Dont Credit 'Sloppy Steve' Bannon for a pro-Israel Presidency. Its Always Been Trump

Some on the Jewish right banked heavily on Steve Bannon and his pro-Israel heft. But they got it wrong: It's Trumps instincts deciding American policy, and that means support for Israel, and obvious antipathy for the Palestinians and Iran

A demonstrator holds a paper cutout of Steve Bannon during a protest in response to President Donald Trump's refusal to make his tax returns public, Philadelphia. April 15, 2017.
MARK MAKELA/REUTERS

For some on the Jewish right the collapse of Steve Bannon is disappointing.

Even after he lost his position as President Trumps chief strategist last summer, the now former Breitbart CEO was still considered an important Washington figure.

The decision of the Zionist Organization of America to give him a platform at their annual dinner in New York City last fall earned the group criticism from liberals who see Bannon as an anti-Semite and the embodiment of all that they hate about the rise of Trump. But given Bannons pro-Israel stands and influence, ZOA was unmoved.

The publication of Michael Wolffs Fire and Fury, in which White House sources paint a dismal picture of President Donald Trump has confirmed the opinions of his critics that he is unfit for office.

But it also marked the end of any pretense that Bannon has any influence. Though the fortunes of those who vie for favor in Trumps court of advisers and sycophants can always change, when the man at the top gives someone a derisive nickname like the "Sloppy Steve" tag the president gave Bannon, it generally means hes done.

If you thought, as perhaps some on the right did, that Bannon was integral to Trumps pro-Israel slant, thats bad news. On the other hand, if like Haaretzs Chemi Shalev, you are someone on the left who believed Bannon was key to a right-wing "cabal" involving casino owner/philanthropist Sheldon Adelson and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hijacking U.S. Middle East policy, you might applaud his political obituary.

Yet neither point of view is accurate.

Thanks to the rise of Trump, Bannon and Breitbart have played an outsized role in American politics since 2015. But the notion that he was essential to the way U.S. policy toward Israel changed in the year since President Obama left office is a gross exaggeration.

White House Senior Advisor Steve Bannon attends a roundtable discussion held by U.S. President Donald Trump with auto industry leaders Michigan, U.S., March 15, 2017
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Bannon may have been a strong advocate for positions that pleased Netanyahu and left the Palestinians and the Jewish left unhappy.

But those who obsess about the impact of White House palace intrigue on Israel are giving too much credence to the self-serving leaks that form the basis of Wolffs entertaining collection of West Wing gossip, and not enough to Trumps policy instincts, as well as a more fundamental shift in which the two major political parties have swapped identities on Israel.

Those who banked heavily on the idea that Bannon could provide both access and influence with Trump obviously were mistaken. But other than the momentary embarrassment that his disfavor brings, it wont hurt them.

The Jewish right wasnt so much in love with Bannon or his Breitbart credo of politics as a form of warfare as they are with Trumps pro-Israel tilt and obvious antipathy for the Palestinians and Iran. They wont miss a beat in continuing to speak out in Trumps favor even if Bannon is never heard from again.

Its also important to remember Adelson had broken with Bannon before Trump did, when he disavowed his attempt to orchestrate a national rebellion against the Republican establishment via primary challenges to incumbent senators and members of Congress.

People protest against the appointment of alt-right media mogul Stephen Bannon as chief strategist by president-elect Donald Trump, Los Angeles, California, U.S., November 16, 2016.
David McNew, AFP

Bannons foolish embrace of Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race may have done him more harm in the long run in Trumps eyes than the Wolff book. Despite the presidents own endorsement of the accused pedophile in a special election, he still viewed Bannon as the scapegoat for that bad decision

More to the point, if Bannons presence - supposedly coordinating the interests of Netanyahu and Adelson with the presidents "America First" agenda - was so important, then how can one explain the fact that Trump made his Jerusalem decision months after he lost his job and a time when he was embroiled in the Alabama fiasco?  

Thats especially true in light of the fact that two of the figures that were most at odds with Bannon on Israel — presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and National Security Advisor General H.R. McMasters — were still in place when Trump made that move?

For all of the maneuvering that both the Israeli government and its American supporters might have done in the last year, Trumps decisions were primarily his own doing.

That contradicts Wolffs narrative - in which Trump is portrayed as a barely functional imbecile. Trumps lack of interest in reading briefing papers as well as his vanity, thin skin and lack of a filter when using social media isnt a revelation.

U.S. President Donald Trump yells to members of the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017.
Bloomberg

But it is his instinctual distrust of expert opinion and establishment groupthink that led to his Jerusalem decision, support for Iranian protesters and a desire to defund the Palestinians, not arguments made by Bannon, Adelson and Netanyahu that probably bored him.

Just as important, the applause he garnered for this from a broad cross-section of Republicans also reflects the way the GOP had become a lockstep pro-Israel party long before Trump, while Democrats are now the party that is divided about backing for the Jewish state.

That most Republicans define the term "pro-Israel" along lines that the Likud rather than the Israeli left would cheer also has nothing to do with any cabal, but does reflect both the views of conservative Christians as well as the innate sympathy for Zionism that is already baked deep into the political DNA of most Americans.

So despite the obvious interest observers have in pondering how Wolffs book will influence policy, the contretemps about Bannon and his rivalry with Kushner remains less important than Trumps frame of reference about foreign policy.

Bannon may be banished but so long as Trumps instincts keep telling him to do the opposite of what the foreign policy establishment wants, its likely that Netanyahu will continue to be well pleased.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin 

Full disclosure: Sheldon Adelson is a funder of JNS.org