WASHINGTON – Nikki Haley’s resignation on Tuesday caught the entire political world by surprise.
It is too early to analyze what consequences it may have for President Donald Trump, the midterm elections and Haley’s own political future. But one thing does seem clear: With Haley’s departure, the “pro-Israel” community in the United States – meaning organizations that support the current Israeli government – has lost its favorite Trump administration official.
Ever since Trump entered the White House in January 2017, his administration has unleashed a string of decisions benefiting Israel’s right-wing government.
These decisions included the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; significant cuts in American aid to the Palestinians; a withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; and an upcoming peace plan that, according to all signs, will be tailor-made for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political needs.
Throughout this period, Trump has become very popular in Israel, but not so much among Israel-supporting American Jews. For them, the most popular figure in the administration was Haley.
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On Tuesday, following Haley’s resignation, Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank that had a leading role in opposing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, tweeted: “Thank you Nikki Haley for your remarkable service. We look forward to welcoming you back to public service as President of the United States.”
His words seemed to echo the hopes of many in the pro-Israel community. One source at a leading pro-Israel organization, who asked not to be identified, told Haaretz, “Our people want a politician with Trump’s policy of total support for Israel. They just don’t want that politician to be Trump.”
The administration and the president – both immensely popular in Israel itself – have remained unpopular among many supporters of Israel in the United States, especially within the Jewish community.
It is no secret that Trump is loathed by most liberal, left-leaning American Jews, but even conservative and centrist American Jews have a hard time with many of his policies, not to mention his toxic and divisive rhetoric. It's not uncommon to hear officials in pro-Israeli organizations say, always on background or off-the-record, that as much as they like some of Trump’s policies toward Israel, they are still troubled by his policies on almost any other issue.
For this segment of the American-Jewish community – liberal or centrist in its general worldview, but closer to the right-wing government in Jerusalem when it comes to Israel – Haley quickly became a favorite, soon after she became Trump’s UN ambassador.
She is identical to Trump in her unquestionable and sometimes unreasonable support for any position of the Israeli government. However, she differs from him in her views and statements on issues like Russia, immigration and sexual harassment.
One example of how far Haley was willing to go in order to support Israel’s government was her decision, in February 2017, to block the appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to the position of UN special envoy to Libya. Fayyad is considered a moderate and is known for his strong opposition to both terrorism and the BDS movement. He has close ties to many former Israeli and U.S. officials. Yet Haley blocked his appointment, signaling to Palestinians that even those who are against violence and boycotts will be humiliated by the United States under the Trump administration.
If Fayyad had belonged to any other nationality, Haley would have probably praised him for his opposition to violence, his determined fight against corruption (which led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to fire him and force him into exile) and his willingness to take upon himself the lost cause of trying to fix Libya. Her refusal to support him, on the grounds that his appointment would be a gift to the Palestinian Authority, was hypocritical – but it was also the first sign of her unwavering commitment to Israel.
The Obama and Trump presidencies have sharpened the debate over Israel in the United States. Republicans and the religious right are more supportive of Israel than ever; Democrats are split, with younger and more liberal segments of the party becoming increasingly critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and sometimes also of the country as a whole.
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The traditional pro-Israel groups, which cherish bipartisanship and believe Israel needs to have broad support among all parts of American society, are alarmed by this trend. They see Trump’s polarizing effect on American politics, coupled with his close affiliation with Israel – and specifically with Netanyahu – as an existential danger in the long run.
That’s why Haley became such a favorite. Her unwavering support for the Netanyahu government, coupled with her softer style of politics, allowed many people to cheer for the Trump administration’s policy on Israel without feeling that they were effectively supporting Trump in doing so.
This was clearly evident at the last two AIPAC policy conferences in Washington, where Haley was received as a rock star and drew more applause than any other speaker. Vice President Mike Pence, the other senior Trump administration official to speak at the two conferences, was also warmly received, but it was clear that the AIPAC crowd connected more easily with Haley than with him.
Identity politics played a role in that: Pence is an evangelical Christian, while Haley is the daughter of Sikh immigrants.
But there is also an issue of style. Haley speaks in a tone and language that tries to appeal to centrists; Pence has built his political career on appealing to the base. There are many centrist Democrats and Republicans at AIPAC events and, for them, Haley’s style is easier to identify with than Pence’s.
During his speech at this year’s conference, Pence drew laughter from the crowd when he accidentally said that Trump was “the most pro-life” president ever. He wanted, of course, to say “pro-Israel,” but got confused and touted the president’s views on abortion in front of a crowd that overwhelmingly disagreed with Trump on that issue.
It was a moment that perfectly captured why, despite the administration’s “let Netanyahu have whatever he wants” policy, Trump’s administration is still very unpopular among American Jews.
Haley is the exception. She is the one figure within the administration that many American Jews seem to like. Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, wrote earlier this year: “When Nikki Haley runs for president, she will be the first Republican to approach 50 percent of the Jewish vote. Her popularity even among committed Democrats is remarkable.”
Even Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Clinton administration, wrote on Tuesday: “Could Nikki Haley be preparing to challenge Trump in 2020? Seems hard to imagine now but if he loses badly in the midterms maybe Republicans might consider a more responsible, dignified, capable, intelligent daughter of immigrants as an alternative?”
Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under former President Barack Obama, wrote in reply: "Dream on, Martin. Wish it were so, but no chance.”