Analysis

Israel Can't Afford to Be Donald Trump's Fig Leaf

Israel's well-being depends heavily on America's credibility, which has already taken a nosedive in the new administration's first week.

Trump speaks before signing an executive order, January 30, 2017.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Was there ever any doubt that the Trump White House would unabashedly use Israel as its fig leaf when facing American Jewish criticism and accusations of anti-Semitic dog whistling?

If so, all such doubt was removed on Monday during spokesman Sean Spicer’s daily briefing

Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played a starring role in Spicer’s double-down on the Judenrein White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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In one of the first questions posed to Spicer, it was pointed out that even the most pro-Trump cheerleaders in the organized American Jewish community - the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Zionist Organization of America, criticized the statement for its lack of any mention of the Jews.

But in Spicer’s world of alternative facts, it seems, the wall-to-wall criticism never happened and President Donald Trump “by and large, has been praised” that he “went out of his way to recognize the Holocaust and the suffering went through it.”

It’s unclear what in the world the spokesman meant by “went out of his way” -  a statement marking Holocaust Remembrance Day has been standard procedure for both Democratic and Republican presidents.

Besides, it’s not as if Trump sat down and composed the statement himself. Spicer made that by saying that it “was written with the help of an individual who is both Jewish and the descendant of Holocaust survivors.”

Although he refused to mention the president’s son-in-law by name, Spicer noted that “the president has several members of the Jewish faith on his senior staff.”

Each time, Spicer made a reference to Jewish victims, he made sure to add a string of members of other groups harmed by the Nazis: gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled and priests.

But more importantly – central to his defense of what Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt calls “softcore Holocaust denial” – Spicer immediately pivoted to Israel.

He pointed out that “in respect to Israel and the Jewish people, specifically, there’s been no better friend than Donald Trump when it comes to protecting Israel, building a better friendship with Israel. You look at what Prime Minister Netanyahu talked about. He welcomes the administration. He appreciates the friendship and respect that he has shown to Israel and the Jewish people.”

A few minutes later he repeated the argument even more passionately and in more detail, using the injured tone of someone who feels the sting of ingratitude, when the issue was raised by a second reporter.

After calling out the “nitpicking” on the statement “ridiculous”  and “pathetic” Spicer said that Trump should not have been attacked after he “has shown such tremendous respect” for Jews.

The president has demonstrated “such willingness in terms of the State of Israel to go out there and show the partnership that needs to exist between us and the respect,” he said indignantly.

“When you contrast that frankly with a statement - a statement - and you look at the actions of the last administration: the Iran nuclear deal, them giving Palestine an equal footing in terms of the amendment that was passed in the UN Security Council on their way out the door.

"To compare a statement that remembers the Holocaust with the actions of the last eight years, and the disrespect that was shown to Israel is unbelievable. Where were the questions about the UN Security Council resolution that came forward and the idea of this unprecedented step that the outgoing administration took as a massive slap in the face of Israel?”

Spicer’s position can be heard in more basic terms from the mouths of right-wing American Jews and Israelis on the political right and even the center. Any American in Israel who openly shows worry and dismay over Trump (guilty as charged) has heard it repeatedly.

Who cares, the average Israeli says, about suspected religious insensitivity and a too-cozy relationship with the so-called alt right when the fate of the State of Israel is on the table? Finally, they cheer, we have a U.S. president who publicly sides with Israel and its leader against its many enemies, without reservations.

Look at Trump - he opposes the Iran deal and promises to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Sure, the jury’s still out as to whether he’ll completely repudiate long-standing U.S. policy on settlements or the two-state solution, but he seems perfectly content to look the other way when Israel builds in settlements, without condemnation. 

After eight years of wariness and worry over the toxic relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, and regular sniping over settlements from White House and State Department spokesmen, the Trump era feels like a relief, they say.

It’s understandable - and frankly, a clever move on the part of the White House.

And yet, even Trump’s amen corner in Israel needs to resist the dangerous bear hug that his White House is offering.

Netanyahu, with the shadow of criminal investigations hanging over him, and his dependence on the largesse of Trump supporter Sheldon Adelson surely won’t. He’s already shown his willingness to prioritize a Twitter suck-up to Trump ahead of diplomatic relations with Mexico by applauding Trump’s wall. 

His February 15 White House visit, a desperately-needed distraction and display of power for both leaders, will surely be a show of pomp and circumstance. There will surely be a bonanza of chummy Trump-Netanyahu photo opportunities. The mostly-invisible Melania may even emerge from Trump Tower and head to Washington to take tea with her telephone buddy Sara.

If the prime minister isn’t going to express any misgivings over Trump, the tone of his White House, and his troubling new policies, Israelis have to do it themselves. We can’t afford to be Donald Trump’s fig leaf.  

We can’t look the other way when Lipstadt observes that “Holocaust denial is alive and well in the highest offices of the United States. It is being spread by those in President Trump’s innermost circle.”

We can’t ignore the outrage of American Jews at Trump’s disturbing new immigration policies, particularly his rejection of Syrian refugees. Many Orthodox Jews have been visible at airport protests against the moves, demonstrating that even the sector of American Jews that showed Trump the strongest support is troubled by his executive order, which echoes policies that denied refuge to thousands of Jews from the Nazi regime.

Most importantly, we can’t abandon our affinity for and our alliance with the United States which is, as the cliche goes, unbreakable. Israel’s continued well-being still depends heavily on America's credibility and stature in the world, not to mention as a role-model for democracy and respect for human rights.

Trump and the chaotic first week of his presidency has inflicted irreparable damage to all of the above and the destruction shows no sign of abating. Anyone who believes this won’t, in the long run, damage Israel as well, is fooling themselves.