If 2016 were a typical presidential election year, the current news cycle would be a boon to Republicans making the case that Hillary Clinton’s Democratic White House would be highly problematic for Israel and its supporters.
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In such an alternative universe, one in which Donald Trump had stuck to building skyscrapers and golf courses and stayed away from presidential politics, a one-two punch in the headlines over 24 hours could have easily reinforce the dislike and distrust of Obama and Clinton in pro-Israel advocacy circles, helping to win over American Jews in key battleground states like Florida and Ohio.
First came the news that the Movement for Black Lives - a new political coalition of 50 groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement had decided to slam Israel as committing “genocide” describing it as an “apartheid state” and endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in its platform, singling the Jewish state out as the only foreign country coming in for criticism.
The Democrats can’t easily disassociate themselves with Black Lives Matter after the group was featured so prominently at the recent Democratic National Convention, spotlighting “Mothers of the Movement” - eight mothers who had children killed as a result of gun violence or political violence.
The platform’s harsh language on Israel was swiftly condemned by several Jewish organizations, including progressive groups that have cooperated with Black Lives Matter in the past. The largest U.S. Jewish organization, the Reform Movement, declared that the platform's description of Israeli "genocide" and "apartheid" both "offensive and odious” and said that “as deeply committed Zionists we condemn in the strongest possible terms the platform's language on Israel and the Palestinian Territories."
Then, the controversial Iran nuclear deal shot back into the headlines after a report in the Wall Street Journal detailed a $400 million cash payout to Iran, just after four Americans detained in the Islamic Republic were released. Obama administration officials insisted the money was part of a $1.7 billion settlement reached with Iran over a failed arms deal signed in 1979, before the fall of the Shah - without a connection to the American prisoners.
"We announced these payments in January, many months ago. It wasn't a secret. This wasn't some nefarious deal," Obama said in his administration’s defense at a press conference on Thursday, working to spin a damaging story into a positive one - showing that the Iran deal was being tightly enforced. "The reason that we had to give cash is precisely because we are so strict in maintaining sanctions and we do not have a banking relationship with Iran."
Whether or not there was a cash-for-hostages quid pro quo, the image of pallets of cash being quietly airlifted to Iran rubbed salt in the wounds of deal opponents, reminding them of the millions at the disposal of a regime that who has vowed to destroy Israel. Clinton is running firmly on Obama’s coattails, and not only did she back the Iran deal, but at her convention, she spotlighted the foreign policy achievement of having brought the Iranians to the negotiating table.
All of this might have benefited Trump if the current campaign had anything to do with real issues. But it isn’t. In what can only be described as a surreal atmosphere, the U.S. media is now squarely focused on Trump’s non-stop cavalcade of damaging statements, unstatesmanlike behavior and unflattering revelations, from his draft deferments to the possibility that his wife, Melania, violated U.S. immigration laws as a young woman.
Stories like the Black Lives Matter statement and even the Iran cash story have - like every other substantive news story or world news event - been all but buried under the 24-hour focus on Trump’s often frighteningly irresponsible statements and implosion in the polls. Clinton’s lead is growing in all of the key battleground states that Trump must win to have any chance at the presidency. A slow but steady trickle of Republicans have said they cannot endorse him, with some defecting to Hillary Clinton, in a downward spiral for Trump that began with his disparaging remarks to a Gold Star family, and has most recently descended to his discussion of an invented video of the Iran cash transfer, which - if it had existed - would most certainly have been classified.
The degree to which Trump’s words and behavior have crossed the line of acceptability, responsibility appears to have given Israel hawks pause. Some, like billionaire hedge fund manager (and Times of Israel owner) Seth Klarman - who backed several Republicans in the primaries have declared that they will actively support Clinton.
It was only a week ago that Trump supporter Rudolph Giuliani boasted to the Washington Post that "I've talked to members of the Israeli government at the highest levels," and “I know who they want elected here. It’s not Hillary Clinton. It’s not Obama 3.” In his remarks - denied by Israeli government officials - the former New York mayor said that Israelis were worried about a U.S. push to “start the two-state solution thing again” and “cave in to the Palestinians” and that only Trump would stand up to ISIS and “be better for the state of Israel than Hillary."
But what a week it’s been. Trump has done many things that would be considered taboo even in the rough and tumble of Israeli politics - showing terrible disrespect for the family of a fallen soldier, openly discussing classified information, and speculating about the use of nuclear weapons.
More importantly, the mercurial and changeable Trump, who is being diagnosed by the media with various mental disorders, has become even more utterly unpredictable than before, something that a country like Israel, whose security leans on the bedrock of its alliance with the U.S., simply can’t afford.
Some of my truly diehard Jewish Republican anti-Hillary acquaintances have, after trying their best to believe in Trump, finally conceded defeat. “She is a horrible, dishonest, corrupt, hypocritical, power hungry, wretched human being,” one of them posted on Facebook. “But he is such an enormous asshole that he makes her seem like the rational choice.”
Might Netanyahu reach the same conclusion? He has firmly refused to discuss the U.S. presidential election publicly, so it is impossible to know for sure. But one suspects that even he may have turned a corner on Trump and prefers the devil he knows - Hillary Clinton - over the frightening specter of dangerous uncertainty that would be a Trump presidency.