Where's the Outrage Over Trump Campaign's Shocking Statement on 'Ethnic Cleansing'?

While we were all distracted by Hillary Clinton’s health, the Trump campaign said something about Israel and the Palestinians that should have us all very worried.

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on August 3, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on August 3, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.Credit: Mark Wallheiser, AFP Photo

Here’s something you probably missed: On Sunday, while Hillary Clinton’s real and imagined health issues dominated the headlines, Donald Trump’s campaign took a firm position on the issue of “ethnic cleansing.” You can see where this is going: It wasn’t exactly the stand most people would take.

The story is this: Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released an incendiary web video that caused outrage on a global scale. (Feels like we’ve been here before, right? That’s because we have. More than once.)

This time, Netanyahu said the Palestinian demand for an evacuation of settlements from the West Bank as part of a future peace agreement is tantamount to “ethnic cleansing.” This, of course, is preposterous on numerous levels, not least because it paints Netanyahu himself – who voted for Ariel Sharon’s plan to clear Gaza of all Jewish settlements – as an ethnic cleanser. It also completely undermines the logic of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a solution that Netanyahu himself occasionally supports.

Netanyahu’s shocking statement angered many around the world, and reportedly made White House officials “livid.” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau condemned the video, saying that “using that type of terminology is inappropriate and unhelpful.” 

Trump adviser David Friedman, however, liked what he heard. In an exclusive statement to Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer, Friedman –Trump’s adviser on U.S.-Israel relations – stated that “Prime Minister Netanyahu makes exactly the right point. The Palestinians want Israel to absorb countless 'refugees' – people who never lived in Israel and whose ancestors were never forced to leave Israel – while their so-called 'state' is required to be, as the Nazis said, Judenrein (devoid of Jews).”

“It is an entirely racist and anti-Semitic position,” Friedman charged. “Arabs live and work side by side with Israelis in the State of Israel. They attend universities, enjoy the strongest human and civil rights (including women's rights) in the region, and have access to world-class health care. There is no better place for Arabs to live in the Middle East than in the State of Israel.

“With this background in mind, the Prime Minister of Israel correctly observes that the Palestinian demand to remove all Jews from their ancestral homeland in Judea and Samaria is nothing short of an attempt at ethnic cleansing. The State Department should be ashamed of their misguided reaction to Mr. Netanyahu's remarks.

“The United States frequently refers to the ‘two-state solution’ as two states for two peoples. The Palestinian response – which the U.S. State Department refuses to challenge – is ‘one state for two peoples (Israel) and a second state just for Palestinian Arabs.’ It is no wonder that the State Department under Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have lost credibility in the region.”

Leave it to Trump’s camp to endorse an incendiary, nonsensical piece of demagoguery, and then double down on it with shockingly farcical Nazi analogies.

This argument is, of course, ludicrous for many reasons, but let’s focus on two: First, it makes no sense. Flawed as it may be, the two-state solution at least has some logic to it. Friedman’s (and by assertion, the Trump campaign’s) vision does not. No one – certainly not Netanyahu and (probably) not Friedman – is suggesting that settlers become Palestinian citizens who pay taxes to Palestine and abide by its laws, as the Palestinians citizens of Israel do. Presumably, settlements should be allowed to function as Israeli enclaves within the hypothetical Palestinian state? How is that supposed to work?

Secondly, it’s preposterous to claim that Palestinian refugees, descendants of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians expelled during Israel’s War of Independence (talk about ethnic cleansing)  bear no connection to Israel (née Palestine), while at the same time standing up for the rights of American-born Jews who became settlers to live in their “ancestral homeland.”

But logic, reason, or factual accuracy matter very little to Trump and his people. The point of their support for Netanyahu’s latest statement wasn’t part of a coherent plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but a clear attempt at pandering to right-wing, pro-Israel voters (including the 60,000 eligible American voters who live in West Bank settlements and whose votes they seek). 

In the last few weeks, Trump’s supporters in Israel have been working very hard to get the GOP nominee a majority of Israel’s 200,000-plus eligible American votes. In the last month alone the Israeli pro-Trump campaign opened four campaign offices across Israel, including one in a West Bank settlement – a first for a U.S. presidential nominee. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign and its Israeli supporters have been ramping up the pro-settlement rhetoric.

It’s classic Trump behavior: entice the far-right crowd by espousing the most incendiary rhetoric imaginable (“Judenrein” as Israel-Palestine’s “Mexicans are rapists”), and then present outlandish fringe ideas as if they were serious and well-thought-out policy plans.

But the Trump campaign’s positions on Israel aren’t just ludicrous. They can also be dangerous. If Trump were to be elected, they would effectively ensure that no negotiation could take place. But more important than that, receiving the endorsement of a major presidential candidate contributes to the increasing legitimization of the most extremist elements of Israeli politics, the ones who seek to establish a de-facto apartheid state.

The positions of his advisers may accurately reflect Trump’s thinking on this. Then again, they may not – Trump has reneged (excuse me, “softened”) some extreme positions before. But the mere fact that those things have been said, despite their incendiary nature, proves what so many have said about Trump and his surrogates: They will say anything, literally anything, to get another vote, no matter what it means for the rest of us.

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