Opinion

Can Trump, Evangelicals and Right-wing Jews Really Relate to a post-Netanyahu Israel?

Will the U.S. president lose interest in an Israel no longer headed by a populist honorary Republican? What about Trump's most ardent supporters, and his Mideast 'peace team,' so deeply invested in Netanyahu staying in office?

US President Donald Trump at a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York. September 24, 2019,
AFP

President Donald Trump’s reaction to last week’s Knesset election may have surprised some of his pro-Israel supporters. After making no secret of his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump’s only comment was to say that he hadn’t spoken with his friend since the voting and that, “Our relationship is with Israel.” 

It’s always shocking when Trump says something so entirely appropriate to the occasion. But Trump is, of course, right. 

As close as he and Netanyahu have been, the alliance between the two nations transcends the relationship between the two individuals. More to the point, Trump is, whatever else you may think of him, an entirely self-interested individual. When someone ceases to be of any use to him, he quickly moves on.

So Jewish right-wingers shouldn’t be shocked by the fact Trump doesn’t appear to be seeking to undermine Gantz’s bid to topple a friend who may be about to lose office.

Netanyahu’s demise is still not a done deal. But the possibility of a change of administration in Jerusalem is raising interesting questions for observers of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Some have wondered all along whether Trump would lose interest in an Israel that was no longer governed by someone who was not regarded as an honorary red state Republican and who echoed the president’s populism and contempt for the press. 

Just as important is the fact that many of Trump’s most ardent supporters - both evangelical Christians and right wing Jews - were deeply invested in Netanyahu staying in office. 

If they stopped being boosters of Israel’s government and, in effect, exchanged places with their left-wing antagonists - like J Street - and become vocal opponents of the policies of a Gantz-led government, how would that impact Trump’s willingness to stand with a Jewish state that still faced daunting security challenges from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran? 

Also complicating post-Netanyahu relations with the United States are two other factors that have more to do with the Trump administration than Israeli politics.

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One is the fact that the entire U.S. foreign policy team tasked with managing the U.S.-Israel relationship are not neutral players or State Department veterans but people who are openly identified with support of the Israeli right.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman helped raise money for the settlement movement before joining the administration. In contrast to every one of his predecessors - both Jewish and non-Jewish - he has acted as a cheerleader for Netanyahu’s right-wing/religious coalition rather than as an American pro-consul seeking to pressure Israel’s government. 

Though presidential advisor/son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was tasked with crafting a Middle East peace plan that remains under wraps, is not the partisan that Friedman is in an Israeli context.

Ambassador David Friedman listening to Jared Kushner during the inauguration of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

But there is also no question that as an Orthodox Jew who had longstanding friendly ties with Netanyahu, he helped steer Trump toward reversals of longstanding U.S. positions on Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the adoption of policies toward the Palestinians and Iran that neatly aligned with those of the prime minister.

The other complicating factor is that Trump has just fired John Bolton from his post as national security advisor in large measure because he shared Netanyahu’s stand opposing the possibility of new negotiations with Iran. 

Trump has stuck to his rejection of Barack Obama’s nuclear deal and the re-imposition of devastating economic sanctions on Tehran. But the president has no taste for an escalation of the conflict or a regime change policy rather than an effort to improve Obama’s dangerously weak pact.

This creates a scenario that many on the right might regard as a formula for the crackup of the honeymoon that has existed between the two countries since January 2017. 

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton with Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman during a flight in an Israeli military helicopter over the Jordan Valley, on June 23, 2019.
\ POOL/ REUTERS

But as unhappy as Netanyahu’s American cheerleaders may be about the prospect of adjusting to the prospect of the fall of their hero, the notion that Trump will react to a change of power in Jerusalem by downgrading the alliance is unfounded.

A prospective Prime Minister Gantz is likely to be as eager for good relations with Trump as Netanyahu was. Keeping as close as possible to the occupant of the White House is always the duty of any Israeli prime minister and Gantz would have no incentive to offend a president who remains popular with the Israeli public, if not with some of those who voted for his Kachol Lavan party and the left wing parties last week. 

Moreover, so long as Gantz is prepared to flatter Trump, he’s likely to get a friendly reception from a president who has a soft spot for anyone with the word "general" in his resume.

There’s also the fact that although Netanyahu has labeled Gantz as a leftist, the former IDF chief of staff’s positions on the peace process aren’t that different from those of the Likud if his two 2019 campaigns meant anything. It’s also doubtful that a president who still unrealistically yearns to broker the "ultimate deal" with the Palestinians will seek to be more right-wing on the peace process than Gantz.

That won’t necessarily be true of Trump’s evangelical and right-wing Jewish fans. 

They will be inclined to criticize Gantz if he deviates from his campaign promises about getting tough with Hamas or holding onto settlements and the Jordan Valley. They will also be dismayed if Gantz proves to be supportive of outreach to Iran. Yet they will also still act as a brake on any temptation on Washington’s part to abandon Israel.

A post-Netanyahu Israel won’t quite fit into Trumpworld’s vision of an international alliance of populist conservative governments. Some administration players, like Ambassador Friedman, may also find themselves out of place when forced to be an interlocutor with a government that won’t share his devotion to a Jewish state in all of the land of Israel. 

But Trump is no more likely to betray an Israel led by Gantz that he was to double-cross Bibi. Nor would a Republican party that is almost unanimous in being lockstep backers of the Jewish state tolerate such a switch.

As hard as it is for both right-wingers who love Bibi and liberals who despise Trump to accept it, the president might ultimately be just as comfortable with a Gantz government as he was with Netanyahu.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin