If Trump Wins, We Could See the Worst of U.S.-Israel Ties on Steroids

The effects of a Trump administration’s specific brand of pro-Israelism would likely accelerate – perhaps dramatically – two trends already in motion.

Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, speaks during a campaign event at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 15, 2016.
Bloomberg

It is easy, perhaps too easy, to harp on the absurdities of how American politics relate to Israel. It is the satirical material of popular political shows, such as “The West Wing,” in which fictional President Josiah Bartlet once considered framing and mounting a map of the Holy Land from 1709 and got dressed down by staffers: “People would be offended – the map does not recognize Israel.”

In the current election, reality makes fictional scriptwriters seem unimaginative: drafting the Democratic platform became a Basil Fawlty-like exercise in not mentioning the occupation, while Republican candidate Donald Trump has encouraged settlement building and accused the Obama administration of treating Israel as a second-class citizen (blessed, indeed, is the second-class citizen who receives more military assistance than any other country, bar none). 

Setting aside disbelief for a moment, imagine the following scenario. Despite the compelling and mounting evidence of the doomed nature of the Trump candidacy – even after the recent launch of his campaign among Americans exiled in Israel – the Donald wins and is sworn in as America's 45th president on January 20, 2017.

President Trump then sets out to govern based on the positions – or at least sound bites – he has espoused during the campaign, including those about banning Muslims, building a wall with Mexico and Israel’s right to expand settlements.

Likewise, senior echelons of the Trump administration are staffed by some of those who have spoken as his advisers on Israel affairs (these include a president of the American Friends of the Beit El settlement, who has compared J Street to “Kapos during the Nazi regime” and a former settler who boasts of not having met any Palestinians since his time as a yeshiva student in the settlements during the 1980s).

Then imagine that the collection of national-security pronouncements (a mixture of America First, chauvinism and pivoting away from friends toward certain foes) become policies sustainable throughout a significant chunk of a Trump administration’s tenure.

America's closest allies, including in NATO and in Asia, are put on notice that they must demonstrate their usefulness to America and pay their way. With one notable exception, Israel.

America’s global commitments are radically downsized. Again, with one exception, Israel, for whom America will continue to jump through every hoop in every international forum and to deploy whatever is deemed necessary to defend that state – militarily, politically and economically.

The entire scenario is far-fetched, not least its opening premise of a Trump election victory – yet the GOP has nominated Trump, the candidate and his advisers have taken these positions and this election is being treated as a serious contest.

What, then, would the consequences be were this scenario to unfold? The effects of a Trump administration’s specific brand of pro-Israelism would likely accelerate – perhaps dramatically – two trends already in motion.

The first is occurring inside the United States, and involves the shifting political terrain regarding Israel. Evidence already exists as to the difficulties of sustaining uncritical bipartisan support of every Israeli policy.

Could that notion survive the unprecedented polarizing effect of a Trump administration, in which Israeli occupation policies – building separation walls, racial profiling, appeals to ethnocracy over democracy (the shared Netanyahu/Trump playbook) – are closely identified as Trump values?

The Donald's particular brand of pro-Israel exceptionalism will be hard for many who are traditionally sympathetic to Israel to stomach – more so even than Netanyahu’s foray’s into partisan U.S. politics.

More strident critiques of the U.S.-Israel relationship are likely to become part of the mainstream anti-Trump narrative. The potential impact among Democrats and non-Trump Republicans should not be underestimated.

The second trend likely to be put on steroids under a Trump presidency is the ascendancy of the Israeli far right’s claim that its policies can be implemented even while Israel benefits from American and international support.

The key political fault line in Israel today is not between left and right, but rather between rightists calling for the precipitous annexation of the West Bank and realization of the vision of Greater Israel versus those arguing for continued but incrementalist territorial expansion and Palestinian dispossession.

That distinction – between the extreme and pragmatic right – may seem semantic, but it matters a great deal. The pragmatic right is more cautious, more democratic and includes elements open to compromise under certain circumstances.

The debate in Israel long ago abandoned issues of morality, international law or even values, and has become increasingly focused on two simple themes: demographics, and whether there are any limits, internationally, to Israeli impunity.

The more it has been proven that Israel can get away with anything at minimal or no cost internationally, the more extreme Israeli politics and policies have, unsurprisingly, become.

If an American administration were to shift from timidly opposing to openly embracing a permanent Israeli apartheid system for managing the Palestinians, then the demographic issue is also resolved, with Palestinian enfranchisement off the agenda indefinitely.

There is a school of thought in certain leftist circles that welcomes the clarifying and polarizing impact of a prospective Trump presidency. That is the logic of the “Bernie or Bust” crew, those Sanders supporters who refuse to back Hillary Clinton. Their so-called theory of change can also be applied to the Israel-Palestine issue.

In reality, that prospect is terrifying, not least for those who are ultimately supposed to benefit from this “clarity.” If Trump’s pronouncements are not to be taken seriously, then the candidacy itself is not serious.

And if the Republican nominee means what he says, then let's not pretend this is politics as usual. Choices have consequences – sometimes decidedly ill-advised ones.

Daniel Levy is the President of the U.S. / Middle East Project, based in New York and London and served until recently as Middle East and North Africa Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.