Opinion

The Trumpists Have Fallen – but U.S. Jews Should Not Celebrate Yet

Like the Kurds, the Palestinians have lost out in the international clout stakes, and will continue losing regardless of who may replace Trump

Participants in the Celebrate Israel parade in New York
John Minchillo/AP

If Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in north Syria to the non-existent mercies of Turkey and the Assad regime was not so tragic, we might have been permitted a smidgen of satisfaction at the comeuppance of Benjamin Netanyahu. How the Trumpists have fallen.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 44Haaretz

Netanyahu, who just a month ago had covered Israel with massive campaign banners showing him and Trump together, and had promised on the eve of the election that Trump would soon negotiate with him a U.S.-Israeli defense pact, has now gone five weeks without even a phone call with Trump. Last Thursday, when he spoke at the annual memorial service for soldiers killed in the Yom Kippur War, he stressed that the American emergency airlift of weapons arrived “only towards the end.” He was using a historic detail to tacitly acknowledge that Israel can’t rely even on the most friendly, from his perspective at least, American administration.

It didn't begin with Trump

But this isn’t just about Netanyahu and Trump. There’s a good chance that by January 2021, neither of them will be leaders of their countries. The cavalier and vainglorious fashion in which Trump jettisoned an alliance with the Kurds is not just a badge of shame for America, it’s an indication of increasing disengagement not just of the U.S. from the region, but of the broader group of Western nations, including France and Germany. And this of course didn’t begin with Trump. Barack Obama began that process of scaling back America’s involvement in the region and his change of policy was mirrored by a similar reluctance of the main European countries to exert their influence, which is waning anyway.

Those on the left who campaigned against the war in Iraq and other Western military interventions in the Middle East are rejoicing. Justifiably from their point of view. Trump has effectively brought the Republican Party around to their way of thinking. And unlike Hillary Clinton, who in her presidential campaign advocated a more forceful course of action than Obama’s, including imposing a no-fly zone on northern Syria, it doesn’t look like the current front-runners in the Democratic field have much interest in foreign policy.

Democrats (and most of the Republicans) overwhelmingly voted in Congress on Wednesday to condemn Trump’s withdrawal from northern Syria, but that doesn’t mean they will be in favor of the troops returning there if they win back the White House next November. As Elizabeth Warren made clear in the debate this week, “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East.”

So America won’t be making war in the Middle East, unless it finds itself dragged in again. But will it be making peace?

What incentive will the next American president, even assuming it’s a progressive, have to expend political capital on yet another fruitless attempt to breathe life back into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. Obama gave up on it in his second term, leaving it to the quixotic John Kerry, who spectacularly failed. Trump has discredited the process further with his “deal of the century” delusion. The next president will be focused on domestic issues and creating consensus at home. Any serious diplomacy will almost certainly be reserved for other, more literally burning matters, such as the climate.

What it means for American Jews

All this raises a critical question mark for American Jews. The assumption over the decades that the U.S. is somehow a guarantor of Israel’s security has taken a blow in recent days, from the way in which Trump has signed over Syria’s fate to Russia and Iran. But this ostensible American commitment to Israel’s security always included a second assumption, too – that the U.S. would take a leading role in pushing Israel towards negotiations with its neighbors and the Palestinians. The position of the American Jewish establishment and of many influential American Jewish individuals was that their support and lobbying is crucial to safeguarding both commitments – to security and to peacemaking.

Is it time for American Jews to recognize that their role is now superfluous?

Over the last two and a half years, the majority of American Jews have lost any influence they thought they may have had. Instead, a minority of right-wingers have held sway. But the increasingly erratic decisions of the embattled and quite likely demented president signal that their ascendancy is also over. But as the miserable Trump era may be agonizingly drawing to a close, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a change in administration will mean that liberal Jews will have that much to cheer for.

No matter how many Democratic presidential hopefuls attend the J Street conference or IfNotNow activists manage to extract statements from the candidates, talk is cheap and it is unlikely any of them will follow through on making future military aid conditional on Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza.

Their demand makes sense. If the U.S. taxpayers give Israel $3.8 billion a year, surely it should demand changes in Israeli policy in return. The problem is that it is based on a false representation of the agreement signed in 2016 between Israel and the Obama administration. The U.S. doesn’t “give” Israel the money (save for a small, shrinking proportion, which is being phased out anyway). Eighty percent of the money is actually a subsidy to American arms manufacturers, encouraging Israel to purchase large numbers of U.S.-made weapons systems at drastically reduced prices.

Loss of U.S. jobs

Would a future Democratic president be prepared to cut a program that benefits American industry and jobs? Perhaps. Probably not. But let’s say for argument’s sake that a President Warren thought this was a battle worth fighting. Would it necessarily budge an ultra-nationalist Israeli government that could simply decide to take the short-term financial hit and diversify Israel’s defense spending towards more home-grown and, who knows, even Russian and Chinese arms?

It’s safe to assume that the next Democratic administration will not agree to Israel claiming sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, as some feared Trump was about to do. But it probably won’t exert much pressure on Israel to go in the other direction, either.

The new non-polar geopolitical order, in which the U.S. and Europe have lost most of their power or even motivation to influence world events and the calculations of the so-called “international community” are nakedly cynical and self-serving, will impact first and foremost on the weakest groups and nations. Israel has already established itself as one of the stronger military powers in the region and a technological powerhouse.

Even if Israel loses America’s automatic backing and financial support, it has already positioned itself to transition to a more transactional relationship with other regional and global players. It can weather the blow, if it comes.

More in common with the Palestinians

Despite the affinity many Israelis feel towards the Kurds, the latter have much more in common, as a stateless people, with the Palestinians than with the Jews. And like the Kurds, the Palestinians have lost out in the international clout stakes, and will continue losing as the diplomatic power-play abandons any notion of human rights or justice. In reality, it was always more lip service than any real commitment.

One of the greatest assets of American Jews in their relationship with Israel was the perception that they have an influence over their administration’s Israel policy. That influence, such as it was, became greatly diminished under Netanyahu and Trump. It may not return once they are gone. What happens if the next administration simply doesn’t even want to have an actual Israel policy?