The image of Trump, Netanyahu and their wives at the White House on Monday can only warm the hearts of Israelis and the pro-Israel public. “We have, I would say, probably the best relationships right now with Israel that we ever had,” Trump said at the meeting. “I think we’re as close now as, maybe, ever before.”
That may be true on the surface, but anyone looking for a deeper insight into Trump and Israel would do well to look at his surprise move last week, announcing he would be slapping steep tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
So what? Israel isn’t exactly a major exporter of steel and aluminum and even if a wider trade war over Harley Davidson motorcycles and Kentucky bourbon breaks out as a result, it’s likely to ensnare Europe, China, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Canada, not us. These are America’s biggest trade partners, and all have big trade surpluses with the United States.
Israel also has a big surplus with the U.S. (a pretty hefty $9.4 billion in 2017), but not being in the top 20 trade partners, we’re simply not on the radar screen.
Even Israel’s archest enemies have never accused Israeli workers of throwing Americans out of their jobs.
But the tariffs decision matters to Israel because it is People’s Exhibit A of Trump’s dark view of the world, which holds that America has real enemies, it has no real friends; it holds that diplomacy is a zero-sum game and that international law is for suckers. The president’s job is to put America first, not help ensure world order.
His attitude toward foreign trade reflects Trump’s Hobbesian universe. Worse still, unlike most of the great foreign policy dilemmas he faces with stunning ignorance and indifference, trade is an issue that’s dear to him. He has been unusually consistent in his view that trade deals are bad for America and that even America’s supposed allies take advantage of them to run big bilateral surplus at the expense of the U.S. economy.
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Forget trade agreements: trade wars, as he declared in a tweet, are “good, and easy to win.”
Yes, the steel and aluminum tariffs are popular with his base, but Trump is enamored of the idea, too. The advisers who were urging him not to act of tariffs were fighting a losing battle.
Not that Trump has shown any sign of deeply understanding the issue or arrived at his decision after consulting with economists. The evidence is that the tariffs will have little positive economic impact and may even do damage if they lead to a global trade war with other countries raising their tariffs.
Love Israel, love Israel not
Israel, on the other hand, is not dear to Trump. No matter how much he makes love to Netanyahu and promises to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, he has no his history of friendship with the Jewish state. Until he was president, he had never visited, and early in his campaign, he made some embarrassing faux pas that revealed not only his ignorance of Israel’s concerns but his indifference.
Israel is popular with his base and with some of closest advisers, so for now, we seemed to be on better terms than traditional allies like Britain, Japan, Germany and even Canada. It could even be that the president regards Israel as having just another bunch of Jews, no different than the lawyers, accountants and in-laws he knows so well, just that they happen to live on the other side of the world.
But none of that promises that Israel will stay on Trump’s friends list. Just ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions or Chief of Staff John Kelly how constant a friend the president is, or for that matter the National Rifle Association, which suddenly found itself with a president who out of nowhere began signaling support for gun control.
What could spell the end of Trump's beautiful friendship with Israel is hard to say. It could be over Jared Kushner’s peace plan, if it ever sees the light of day. Or it could because Israel pushes too hard on Iran or Syria. It could be Israel’s next prime minister (a day that appears to be approaching quickly) who doesn’t have the same chemistry or caution Netanyahu has with the president.
No doubt, though, the catalyst will be some kind of an affront that Trump takes personally. And when it happens, no strategic calculation, no advice from aides, no appeals from his base or the GOP, and no history of friendship will change the president's mind once he’s decided that Israel is no longer his friend or in his interest to support.