Israelis’ Tragic, Delusional Shortsightedness on Trump

The narcissistic 45th president won't turn the other cheek if Israelis start to attack him personally, unlike Obama who, despite the Israeli right's animosity, still offered powerful foreign aid and strategic cooperation.

A person wearing a Donald Trump mask, gestures near a statue of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by Israeli sculptor Itay Zalait, at a square outside Tel Aviv's city hall, December 6, 2016.

Talking to even my most reasonable and educated friends in Israel, I am struck by their almost universal optimism about Israel's future relationship with America under a Trump administration.

This confidence is baffling to me because it is in such contrast to the view in capitals throughout the world, where at best uncertainty and often dread and anxiety appear to reign when it comes to the future with a Trump-Republican-led America.  

Among NATO members, Brussels is worried about Trump’s claim that NATO is “obsolete,” while the Germans are angry about his meddling in their foreign affairs and encouragement to member nations to separate from the EU, which he has called “a vehicle” for German domination of Europe.  The Baltic states are bathed in anxiety about Russian intentions and the fact that Trump seems to find nothing much wrong with Vladimir Putin’s barely hidden desire to reconstitute a USSR.  The Chinese, the emerging international behemoth, are furious about his questioning of the one-China policy and overtures to Taiwan. Even Britain and Japan, long-time close American allies are unsure what a Trump administration is likely to offer in their alliance.  In France voters are probably wondering which of the candidates running for President there will get an endorsement from the mercurial Trump.  

As for the Americans, while the stock market seems to display confidence, the smallest number of voters appear (41%)  to have faith in their new President’s ability to handle his new responsibilities compared with other incoming Presidents.

Nor do those who look to the Republican Party and its seasoned leadership find hope when they see how the party seems to be following him like lemmings and turning its once-strong principles into vapor.  Nothing more strikingly expresses this than the party’s hasty and chaotic repeal of the Affordable Care Act, in particular its intention to remove one of its most popular features – guaranteeing that no one with a pre-existing medical health condition can be refused health insurance – a principle which it once promised would be preserved.  The Republican-led Congress, in its unseemly rush to approve cabinet nominees without proper vetting, is also undermining trust among the majority of Americans that the people in charge of their government will truly be working for their benefit.

Given this troubling picture, one wonders what makes Israelis believe that the Trump administration and the Republican-led government will nevertheless keep their word. From where do they draw the deluded over-confidence that Trump will continue or even strengthen America's support of Israel, even if policies such as the move of the embassy to Jerusalem lead to political upheaval and headaches for his administration?  

The predictions by many observers that when Trump’s policies start to fail, his dark side will emerge should make Israelis think twice about their confidence.  Moreover, the atmosphere of ethnic and minority religion-bashing that the Trump rise seems to have unleashed has seen the number of anti-Semitic outbursts rise significantly, a fact that should serve as a warning: where Jews are attacked, support for the Jewish state cannot remain unaffected or robust.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu at Trump Tower, September 25, 2016.

And if Israelis start to attack Trump personally – as they did President Obama – don’t count on the highly narcissistic 45th President to turn the other cheek as did his predecessor who, in spite of the animosity of the Israeli right, still offered powerful foreign aid and strategic cooperation.  

Predictability is often viewed as boring, but in foreign policy and international relationships there is much to be said for being able to count on the future. Boring there is good.  For almost all of Israel’s existence, it has been possible to assume that, in the crunch, regardless of who lives in the White House or is in the majority, America will be an ally, and that Russia cannot be trusted.  

With Trump, whom no one seems to be able to predict or completely understand and who seems to have nothing but praise for the Russian leader, in charge along with a compliant Republican majority, can any Israeli seriously think a future linked to them is cause for optimism? And does anyone really believe Trump’s boast that his son-in-law Jared Kushner has the secret to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians?

Israelis should also remember that if the ethno-nationalists who have a firm footing close to the Oval Office, and see the Jewish state as a ‘brother regime’, the Jewish state risks becoming identified with them, a far cry from the original hope that the state would be “a light unto the nations.” Add to that the apocalyptic evangelical Zionists who have embraced Trump and Israel. Is Israel ready to depend on a collection of groups who see Israel simply as a vehicle for their ideology and Jews as the useful tools to bring it about, in the process distancing itself from the 70% of Diaspora Jewry who do not share these 'friends'?

Voltaire’s famous dictum seems particularly appropriate: “May God defend me from my friends: I can defend myself from my enemies.”

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.