WASHINGTON – When he was still just one of the 14 remaining candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump gave a speech before the before the Republican Jewish Coalition on December 3, 2015.
During his appearance at the RJC, which is the leading Jewish group associated with the party, Trump was asked whether he would commit publicly to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Unlike other candidates who spoke before and after him, Trump refused to provide such a commitment, or to even say he would accept Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. “I want to wait until I meet with Bibi,” Trump said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname. “You’re going to like me very much, it’s going to be just fine. But you can’t just go in with that attitude,” he stated.
Trump was booed by a number of people in the audience over these remarks. At some point in his speech he said to those in attendance, “I don’t want your money, I’m self-funding my campaign,” and joked that the room was full of “negotiators” like himself. These comments led to accusations of anti-Semitism and provided fuel for the “Never Trump” movement within the Republican Party. Members of that movement attacked Trump at the time for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel.
Nearly 18 months on, much has changed. This week, as Trump made history by relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city has been filled with conservative-funded posters praising him for his “historic” decision. And Republicans who criticized him for his positions on Israel throughout the party primaries have been celebrating his policies since he took office in January 2017.
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Trump critics and supporters both say he has gone on a journey when it comes to his positions on Israel, including the embassy issue. “His positions evolved over time,” says one strong supporter of the president, speaking on condition of anonymity. He admitted to feeling “very concerned about how he would treat Israel at the start of his campaign. I felt like there was no real commitment there. But I was wrong.”
The evolution process described by this supporter can be traced by examining Trump’s statements and actions since the beginning of his presidential run until this week. Throughout this period, Trump has consistently claimed he is Israel’s greatest friend – but the actual manifestations of his friendship weren’t always expressed in the same way.
‘Trump’s instincts are pro-Israel’
When Trump began his unlikely journey to the presidency, one of the most common lines of attack against him by Republican rivals was that he would be “neutral” toward Israel. The phrase – like so many others used to attack Trump – was in fact quoting his own words.
Trump said on a number of occasions that if elected president, he would try to be “neutral” when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in order to make it possible to achieve a peace deal. He added that such a deal would be great for Israel, thus making him the best candidate for Israel among those running.
“At the RJC, he explicitly refused to commit on Jerusalem. But on the other hand, he also didn’t say he’s against it,” says Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union. “He didn’t call it a dangerous idea or [say] it would derail the peace process. He just left it open. He didn’t say what he would do, either way.”
Things changed in the spring of 2016: Trump was close to securing the Republican nomination, but still had to overcome the threat of last-minute political maneuvering at the Republican Party’s convention that July, which could strip him of the nomination. It was during this period that Trump began promising on a regular basis to move the embassy to Jerusalem – something two previous presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, had promised to do but eventually didn’t.
One key moment came in March 2016, when Trump spoke before the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington and promised to move the embassy. Hillary Clinton, who also gave a speech at the pro-Israel lobby’s conference, didn’t make such a promise. From that moment on, Trump was fully committed – at least as a campaigner – to the embassy relocation.
“Trump’s instincts are pro-Israel, and he is also surrounded by people who are strong supporters of Israel, such as Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and Ambassador David Friedman,” says Noah Pollak, a Republican consultant who has been involved in many campaigns related to Israel. “The combination of his instincts being reinforced by the advice he was getting persuaded him over time that this was the right course of action,” he adds.
Pollak says Trump “understands that his supporters are staunchly pro-Israel, and he likes to please his supporters. I am sure this has always been evident to him: At rallies in states where there can’t be more than a handful of Jews in the audience, some of his strongest applause lines are the pro-Israel ones.”
‘The most important promise for us’
Mentions of the embassy move became part of Trump’s “stump speech” by the time he secured the Republican nomination, and also featured in many of his and his advisers’ interviews to the press.
The constant repetition of this promise didn’t help Trump with Jewish-American voters – 70 percent of them gave their vote to Clinton – but it played an important role in ensuring record levels of support for Trump among white evangelicals.
“This was the most important election promise he made for evangelicals. We’re passionate about this issue,” says Bishop Robert Stearns, an evangelical pastor and founder of the pro-Israeli organization Eagles’ Wings.
Stearns tells Haaretz that Trump’s earlier statements on Jerusalem, which provoked criticism in some parts of the Republican Party, seemed to him as part of a learning curve that the then-candidate was going through.
“He’s not a career politician,” explains Stearns. “When he entered the race, he didn’t have 10, 20 or 30 years of political experience. He was on a journey to discover the details of this issue, and it makes sense to me that, with time, his position became more clear.”
But while the vast majority of evangelical voters put their trust in Trump’s election promise, many in the Jewish community – and also in Israel – were skeptical that he would really follow through. Dozens of pundits on both sides of the ocean said at some point during the election that Trump was bluffing, and wouldn’t move the embassy once he entered office.
The first months of the Trump presidency seemed to prove those skeptics right. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said in an interview with Politico last year that Trump originally wanted to announce the embassy move on his very first day in the White House, but was convinced to hold back on the announcement. Trump himself later told Fox News that he was waiting with the embassy move because he wanted first to launch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Last May, Trump had to make a decision: Either sign a waiver delaying the embassy move by half a year – as every president has done since the mid-1990s – or refuse to sign it, and initiate the embassy relocation he had promised his voters.
After pondering and deliberating over the issue for weeks, Trump eventually decided to sign the waiver, while promising that he was still committed to moving the embassy. “It’s a question of when, not if,” the administration explained in briefings to the press.
“I thought it was wise of him not to do it back then,” says Stearns. “It was too early in his presidency. He was still only being introduced on the world stage. He was still arranging his policy priorities.”
Stearns says he didn’t encounter skepticism among fellow evangelicals after Trump signed the waiver – “People still thought he would do it later on. We realized it was still early.”
It only took another six months. Last December, Trump gave a speech announcing the U.S.’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and promised to immediately begin the process of relocating the embassy.
“If Donald Trump knows one thing very well, he knows who voted for him,” says Diament. “He realized this truly is a priority for his voters.”
Diament, whose organization strongly supported the decision to relocate the embassy, says “the influence of Vice President [Mike] Pence should not be discounted on this issue. I’ve known him for more than a decade, and he’s been a leading voice on this throughout his career. His support was a critical component.”
Peace out, party unity in
Immediately after Trump’s speech last December, senior administration officials described the embassy relocation as a process that would take years and probably wouldn’t be completed during Trump’s first term. Trump, though, took the advice of Friedman: Instead of waiting for the construction of a new embassy, he opted for a preliminary relocation of a limited number of offices from the embassy in Tel Aviv to the existing consulate in Jerusalem.
This decision gave Trump a cheaper and faster way to declare that the embassy had moved, and is what ultimately led to Monday’s ceremony in Jerusalem.
Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, says he believes there were three main reasons behind Trump’s decision on the embassy: “We know that Trump is motivated by doing things that other presidents, including Obama, wouldn’t do – and this was certainly a good example of such a thing.
“In addition, some of his and the Republican Party’s most important donors, including Sheldon Adelson, made it clear that this was a top priority for them,” adds Koplow. “On top of that, Trump was viewed with suspicion by many conservatives, who feared that he is secretly a New York liberal who won’t implement their policies. This move helped him receive praise from almost the entire Republican Party, including some of his critics within it.”
Unity within his party could prove crucial for Trump ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. In that regard, the embassy move can’t hurt him, and might even prove helpful as an example of a major promise he has fulfilled.
It’s harder to see how the fulfillment of that promise might, as the administration has been claiming for months, help advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“It’s poisonous to peace,” says Debra Shushan, director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now. “The claim made by Trump, Netanyahu and their minions that by recognizing reality Trump has paved a path to peace, is absurd. Rather than make such a specious claim, Trump should tell the simple truth: He moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to satisfy evangelicals in his base and wealthy conservative Jewish donors like Sheldon Adelson.”