'Pro-Israel': How a Term Hijacked by the Right Could Decide Who Controls the U.S. Senate

The slurs against Democratic candidates in Georgia's election runoffs are the perfect showcase for how Trump and Netanyahu have twisted what 'pro-Israel' means, and why antisemitism so often follows in their wake

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump wave Israeli and US national flags on the day of the U.S. presidential election, in Carmiel, northern Israel, November 3, 2020.
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump wave Israeli and US national flags on the day of the U.S. presidential election, in Carmiel, northern Israel, November 3, 2020. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP
Etan Nechin
Etan Nechin

If Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took his sweet time congratulating President-elect Joe Biden on his election win, for outgoing President Donald Trump’s substantial fan club within Israel's right-wing commentariat, it was way too soon.

Team Trump's allegations of election fraud had already fallen on fertile ground on the Israeli right. Avri Gilad, leftist-turned-hard-rightist host of a popular morning show in Israel, shocked viewers by hotly berating on live TV a news anchor who had committed the sin of referring to Biden as "president-elect." 

Likud activists exchanged WhatsApp conversations in which they theorized that "there will be a dramatic overturning of the election result in two weeks." In a particularly unsavory twist, they singled out American Jews like Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros, who, they groundlessly claimed, were big Biden campaign donors. "These Jews," the message read, "know that evil Biden will be hostile to Israel...they have no moral qualms about supporting him, as long as it's ‘Never Trump’. Sound familiar? The left is the same everywhere." 

Israel’s rightists not only clung on to the Trump camp’s conspiracy theories, but warned in apocalyptic terms about how a Biden presidency would be a catastrophe for Israel. Haaretz Columnist Gadi Taub, children's show host-turned-academic-turned-Steve Bannon enthusiast, suggested that Israel’s anti-Trump camp was both alienated and unpatriotic, declaring that, "The elites in Israel and Iran are celebrating." 

On Tuesday, even after the White House reluctantly set transition processes in motion, Yinon Magal, a religious right-wing ex-MK and seasoned journalist, declared on national radio, "We are still praying for a miracle" that "Donald ben Fred" would win re-election, that "God will perform a miracle like parting the Red Sea." 

Israel itself has had close elections that were decided by a razor-thin margin. Netanyahu himself won his first premiership in 1996 by less than one percent, yet no one called for a recount. If calls for a recount would happen in Israel, these pundits would be screaming about "judicial activism" and the subversive "deep state."

It’s fair to say that right-wing media’s enthusiasm for Trump, if not their commitment to his 2020 "victory," is hardly an outlier in Israel. While an overwhelming majority of U.S.Jews rebuked Trump and his policies with 77 percent voting for Biden, polls showed 63 percent support for Trump in Israel and only 18 percent for Biden. 

And, while his foreign policies were anathema to among the population of most democratic countries, they were consistently popular in Israel. Support for Trump has been so strong that during the election campaigns in 2019 and 2020, Netanyahu used Trump in posters all across Israel. It paid off: After all, in Israel, Trump has been more popular than Netanyahu.

But Trump’s popularity in Israel isn’t only due to him taking the Israeli line on many issues, but is thanks to Netanyahu’s deliberate strategy of embedding himself with the GOP, and pushing the line, in U.S. political discourse, that "pro-Israel" equates with "pro-right-wing Israel," or even just "pro-Netanyahu." 

A stoplight in front of a Netanyahu campaign poster, showing him with Trump, Jerusalem, September 14, 2019.Credit: AFP

That has had repercussions far beyond angry column inches and TV studios in Israel. It broke the hallowed Congressional bipartisanship on Israel, it broke how Israel and antisemitism are talked about in America, and it may even contribute to deciding whether Republicans or Democrats take control of the Senate from January 2021 onwards.

Since consolidating power in 2009, Netanyahu developed a winning election formula that would serve him ever since: he wasn't only going to run against the Israeli left, but against Obama and the Democrats. During the 2012 elections, he hosted Mitt Romney and sang his praises. In the 2013 and 2015 Israeli elections, Netanyahu did everything to portray Obama as the most "anti-Israel" president the U.S. has ever had. 

In reality, Obama's tenure didn't move the needle towards the Israeli left, and satisfied a crucial ask of Israel’s national security community. As Cas Mudde and Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler have pointed out, "Obama did little to actually halt, let alone reverse, the expansion of illegal settlement in the West Bank, and oversaw the (then) biggest U.S. military aid package to Israel in history."

But Trump gave Netanyahu what he wanted with a smile, and relegated the Palestinians to an irritating side-issue. Retreating from the Iran Deal, moving the embassy to Jerusalem to recognizing the Golan Heights, brokering the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan, all triggered a hagiographic response on the Israeli and American right as the most "pro-Israel president ever."

Yair Netanyahu, the PM’s son and dedicated right-wing troll, crowned Trump a modern-day King Cyrus, and enthused to American audiences that the president was considered a "rock star in Israel." 

But scratch the surface, and Trump's "pro-Israel" achievements are marginal at best. The Embassy and Golan Heights recognition were symbolic, not substantive. The normalization agreements were more transformational, but cost Israel’s regional qualitative military edge. Two weeks ago, the IAEA reported that Iran now has more than 12 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the 2015 nuclear deal.

And despite the Deal of the Century, Trump hasn’t been the annexation ally that the right yearned for. His Mideast plan may have greenlighted selective West Bank annexation in principle, but the Gulf accords froze even that.

File photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to members of the media as he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office, November 9, 2015.Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP

After the disappointment of Trump’s loss, Netanyahu needed to save face with the incoming administration. He now claims he never abandoned relations with the Democratic Party during the Trump era. He's absolutely correct: Netanyahu abandoned the Democrats years before, when he went behind Obama's back and spoke in front of Congress to try and stop the Iran deal.

Israeli leaders have always had disagreements with U.S. presidents. But Netanyahu using Obama as a foil to engage and enrage his base has created an immutable political orthodoxy on the Israeli right: No Democratic president can be considered good for Israel, especially not one tied to Obama. Any criticism of current Israeli policies is a betrayal of the Jewish state.

And, as Mike Pompeo’s State Department has just decided, anti-Zionism is definitionally antisemitism, as is activism against Israel’s occupation in the form of endorsing sanctions against Israel or, in a pro-annexation stretch, "in any territory controlled by Israel." 

And despite Trump’s mixed record in terms of the right-wing wishlist, the Israeli right and their now close allies on the U.S., especially evangelical, right, are more than happy to buy Trump’s own self-assessment as the ultimate pro-Israel president. Facts, it seems, have never been a critical part in determining who is "pro" or "against" Israel, let alone who is "good for the Jews."

But as Israel’s right wing consummated its marriage with U.S. conservatives, forcibly co-opting the phrase "pro-Israel" into "uncritical pro-Israeli right-wing," it was already clear that Trump really wasn’t so "good for the Jews." In America.

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of the deadly shooting by a white supremacist that claimed 11 lives. Pittsburgh, Oct. 29, 2018 Credit: Matt Rourke,AP

On his watch, the number of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. have spiked to its highest rate in 40 years higher than ever. "Pro-Israel" Trump’s winking and cheerleading to the far right, from "fine people on both sides" to "stand back and stand by," while feigning ignorance of QAnon, have empowered extremists, and more broadly, in the words of the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt, encouraged "anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and anti-Jewish ideas" to take root.

But none of this moved Netanyahu and the Israeli right one inch. In the immediate aftermath of a white supremacist shooting up a Pittsburgh synagogue, fueled in part by the "Soros immigrant caravan" conspiracy Trump was peddling, and after the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally, Netanyahu’s representatives proactively shielded the president from any critique.

They cravenly adopted Trump’s bothsidesism by slamming antisemitism from the left or equating the synagogue shooter to Palestinian militants. As incoming White House Chief of Staff Ronald Klain tweeted in 2018, the "Prime Minister of Israel apparently had no trouble with Trump embracing Nazis chanting 'Jews will not replace us.'" 

The same selective hearing afflicts Israel’s right-wing in regards to its unholy alliance with the "pro-Israel" evangelicals who also push antisemitism. Pastor John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel, an evangelical group boasting millions of members, supports annexation, war with Iran, and a clash with Islam, all to hasten the end of days. He’s claimed that that Hitler and the Holocaust were God’s plan to drive the Jews to the Holy Land.

No surprise that he was invited to bless the newly-relocated U.S. embassy in Jerusalem at its unveiling ceremony, alongside another evangelical preacher who has declared Jews are headed for Hell. When Hagee recently contracted COVID-19, Netanyahu sent his wishes for a swift recovery, declaring, "Israel has no better friend." 

With Netanyahu’s full backing, “pro-Israel” has now become a shorthand on the U.S. right for backing Israel’s right wing, for backing the ahistorical nonsense of "Judeo-Christian values," and for identifying with either hard right or evangelical supremacists peddling antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant racism.

And now, in the Georgia runoffs, which will decide the balance of power in the Senate, the twisted definition of "pro-Israel" and the ties between the "pro-Israel" right and antisemitism are center-stage.

Republican candidate for Senate Sen. Kelly Loeffler speaks to supporters at an election night watch party in Atlanta. Nov. 3, 2020Credit: Tami Chappell,AP

Senator Kelly Loeffler, the GOP incumbent running against Democratic Party candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock, chose to kick off her campaign by attacking Warnock for his "long history of anti-Israel extremism," his embrace of the "anti-Zionist BLM movement," and for thinking "Israel is an ‘oppressive regime’ for fighting back against terrorism." 

Members of the Atlanta Jewish community immediately defended Warnock from charges of antisemitism, describing his long years of engagement with them and his "unequivocal" support for Israel. Warnock opposes BDS, supports unconditional military aid for Israel and backs a two-state solution – the enirely normative positions of a vast majority of U.S. Jews. 

Warnock did visit the West Bank, and signed a letter critical of Israel’s militarization and policies there. The letter Warnock signed called for a future State of Palestine to be "safe, secure, viable, and contiguous." For Loeffler, as with Netanyahu, that was an instant equivalence to "anti-Israel extremism." It seems fantastical that just 12 years ago, it was a Republican president, George Bush, who called for a “future Palestine” that must be "viable, contiguous and sovereign." 

Georgia Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, right, gesture toward a crowd during a campaign rally in Marietta, Ga. Nov. 15, 2020Credit: Brynn Anderson,AP

If the Georgia campaign has highlighted how narrow, ultra-partisan and undescriptive the phrase "pro-Israel" has become, the antisemitism of its "pro-Israel" protagonists has followed hard behind.

Loeffler granted a cosy interview with Jack Posobiec, an OANN TV host and alt-right conspiracy theorist, who’s associated with neo-Nazis, serially slurs Muslims, pushes the dangerous Pizzagate idiocy and is regularly retweeted by Trump. 

Not to be left behind, her fellow GOP senate candidate, David Purdue, made an ad attacking his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, who’s Jewish, that deliberately enlarged his nose. Ossoff called him out at a face-to-face debate, tracing the sequence of slurs that Perdue had launched at him:

"First, you were lengthening my nose in attack ads to remind everybody that I’m Jewish. Then when that didn’t work, you started calling me some kind of an Islamic terrorist. And then, when then that didn’t work you started calling me a Chinese communist."

The Israeli right and the MAGA crowd have found common ground in their anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant nationalism, and their mutual glorification of Israel’s territorial maximalism. They have redefined "pro-Israel," but at the price of exposing Israelis to strategic threats, and exposing U.S. Jews to the anti-minority hate they whipped up.

And the serried ranks of Trump-loving Israeli right-wing commentators, just like their U.S. Jewish conservative peers, are going to do everything they can to paint the Biden administration as being anti-Israel, just like they did during the Obama era. They’ve predetermined the outcome: as Caroline Glick writes, "The 2020 election has been terrible for the Jews." 

Now, it not just "pro-Israel" that’s been retasked to mean "pro-right-wing Israel," but "Jews" now mean only the "good" Jews, the right-wingers in lockstep with the GOP and Netanyahu.

But rather than giving in to intimidation and misrepresentation, the Biden administration has an unparalleled opportunity to redefine, or restore, what "pro-Israel" means: not a blind obsequiousness to the far-right fringes of Israeli and U.S. society, not appointing zealots as America’s emissaries to Israel,  but yes, separating criticism of policies from fundamental solidarity, yes, disentangling legitimate political debate from drastic accusations of antisemitism, and yes, recognizing that disagreement and compromise, rather than the zero-sum language of betrayal and apocalypse, should characterize relations between the two countries.

In fact, the president-elect should take the example of Georgia’s Senate candidate, Rev. Warnock: someone who is willing to criticize Israel’s policies in good faith, out of a clear commitment to the human and national rights of Israel and the Palestinians. That, in Biden’s own words, Washington "cannot fully safeguard Israelis without peace." 

It would be a significant achievement for his presidency if, in a few years, "pro-Israel" is no longer shorthand for one of the nastier proxy wars between U.S. conservatives and progressives.

Etan Nechin is a Brooklyn-based Israeli writer and editor for The Bare Life Review: a Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Literature. Twitter:  @etanetan23