After Steve Bannon's Dismissal, pro-Israel Hardliners Lose an Ally in the White House

Not everyone in the U.S. Jewish establishment views Steve Bannon as an anti-Semitic enabler of the alt-right; many on the right perceived Trump's controversial adviser as a key political ally

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Steve Bannon attends a joint press conference with Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, February 15, 2017.
Steve Bannon attends a joint press conference with Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, February 15, 2017.Credit: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON - After Steve Bannon was fired from the White House on Friday, a number of Jewish-American organizations expressed support for U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to get rid of the controversial far-right adviser, claiming that Trump should never have hired him in the first place.

But not everyone in the organized Jewish community shares this view of Bannon, who has been accused in the past of making anti-Semitic remarks (accusations he personally denied). Among some hard-line, right-wing supporters of the Jewish state, Bannon was perceived as a key ally in the Trump administration and his ouster will be considered a political setback.

When it was first announced in mid-November 2016 that Bannon would have a leading role in the Trump administration, an outcry broke from prominent groups in the organized Jewish community. Bannon was criticized for stating that Breitbart News (the website he edited before joining Trump's presidential campaign) is "the platform for the alt-right," referring to a group of white supremacist activists. Bannon was also accused of inserting anti-Semitic dogwhistles into Trump's presidential campaign, such as Trump's "closing argument ad" which used footage of prominent Jewish individuals while a narrator speaks of "global special interests" who control Washington.

These attacks on Bannon were one of the most prominent news stories in the first week following Trump's election victory. It didn't take long, however, for a counter-attack to emerge - from the right-wing elements of the Jewish community. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) came to Bannon's defense and accused the ADL of a "character assassination" against Bannon.

"ZOA’s own experience and analysis of Breitbart articles confirms Mr. Bannon’s and Breitbart’s friendship and fair-mindedness towards Israel and the Jewish people,” the organization said in a statement. "To accuse Mr. Bannon and Breitbart of anti-Semitism is Orwellian. In fact, Breitbart bravely fights against anti-Semitism.” The organization added that it "welcomes" Bannon's appointment and wishes him success.

Bannon also received strong backing from Caroline Glick, a Jerusalem Post columnist whom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to persuade to join the Likud's list for the Knesset in Israel's 2015 election. Glick wrote on her Facebook account that "Steve Bannon is not anti-Semitic. Period. He is anti-leftist." She added that "despite the ravings of the ADL, which is now a leftist outfit staffed by Jews rather than a Jewish organization staffed by leftists, 'Jewish' and 'leftist' are not synonymous."

The Republican Jewish Coalition also released a statement, attributed to board member Bernie Marcus, offering support for Bannon. "I have known Bannon for many years," Marcus wrote. "The person that is being demonized in the media is not the person I know. He is a passionate Zionist and supporter of Israel." Marcus mentioned that during his tenure as the editor-in-chief of Breitbart, Bannon opened an office for the website in Jerusalem, because "he felt so strongly about this and wanted to ensure that the true pro-Israel story would get out."

Other right-wing figures who came to Bannon's defense included Rabbi Shmuley Boteach - an associate of Republican billionaire Sheldon Adelson - and Joel Pollak, a Jewish writer and editor at Breitbart. Yet the most significant support for Bannon came from Israel's chief representative in the United States, Ambassador Ron Dermer.

After a working visit to Trump Tower in New York, during which he met with members of Trump's transition team, Dermer addressed the cameras in the tower's lobby and stated, unprompted, that Israel looks forward "to working with the Trump administration, with all of the members of the Trump administration, including Steve Bannon, and making the U.S.-Israel alliance stronger than ever.”

Dermer's specific reference to Bannon - the only Trump administration member mentioned by name - sent a strong signal of support. When Dermer came under criticism for backing a man who proudly boasted of providing a platform for the "alt-right," Israeli officials explained in briefings to the press that Israel seeks a strong relationship with the Trump administration, in which Bannon was poised to have a significant role back then.

But Dermer's motives aside, the other right-wing Jewish supporters of Bannon didn't praise him only because they were hoping to get access to the administration. In the early months of the Trump presidency, Bannon clearly emerged as a hawk on issues related to Israel, and a partner for right-wing groups and activists who hoped to push the Trump administration far to the right of traditional American foreign policy in the Middle East.

When Rabbi Boteach visited Bannon in the White House in May, the two of them took a picture together in Bannon's office. Captured in the picture was a large white-board covering an entire wall in Bannon's office, which included a long list of election promises made by Trump and their current status of fulfillment. One promise clearly visible on the board was moving the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In the internal discussions on this issue, Bannon was one of Trump's most senior advisers who pushed to go forward with the promise and move the embassy. David Friedman, Trump's ambassador to Israel, also supported the move. Bannon and Friedman, however, were outmatched in this debate by a coalition consisting of Trump's top national security and foreign policy advisers, the American intelligence community, and important Arab countries, who all warned that the move could have catastrophic implications.

Another issue on which Bannon took a more hardline position, but lost the internal White House debate, was the President's handling of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump's national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, and his defense secretary, retired General James Mattis, are both considered hawks when it comes to Iran, and are reportedly working on a new policy to push back against Iran's expanding influence in the Middle East. But when Trump had to decide whether or not to announce that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal signed in 2015, both men urged the president not to take any steps that could endanger the deal, at least for now. Trump protested and expressed his anger, but eventually accepted their position. Bannon, according to press reports, was a vocal voice against giving certification that Iran was in compliance.

Two weeks ago, media outlets loyal to Bannon began pushing a vicious and false campaign against McMaster, claiming that he is "hostile to Israel." The attacks against McMaster, which senior Israeli security officials have described as misleading, have come from the same people and groups who previously defended Bannon: Breitbart, ZOA and Glick.

Breitbart, which Bannon returned to as executive editor just hours after his dismissal from the White House, wrote a top-headline article against McMaster two weeks ago, based solely on a Facebook post by Glick, in which the columnist accused McMaster of firing "pro-Israel" officials from the National Security Council. The people McMaster fired, however, were dismissed from the NSC for reasons that had nothing to do with Israel. One of them was fired for writing a conspiracy theory about "Maoists" trying to take over the United States and disturbing it as an official memo; another was dismissed because of a lack of relevant experience for his position.

McMaster has been praised in recent days by former senior Israeli officials, including retired IDF Major General Ya'akov Amidror, Netanyahu's former National Security Adviser, who published an article in his favor in the Jerusalem Post. On Thursday evening, he hosted a senior security delegation from Israel, headed by the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at his home in the Washington, D.C. area.

Yet it's doubtful if these facts will have any effect on the right-wing campaign trying to portray him as anti-Israel. With a vengeful Bannon back at his old job editing Breitbart, these attacks on McMaster are expected to intensify. Bannon was an important ally for the pro-settlement right-wing while he was in the White House. It remains to be seen what his allies will do for him now, after he's been shown the door.

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