Should Israel's Right embrace Trump before he takes office?

Trump’s victory, however, does present Israel with another major challenge, possibly one of the greatest it has faced in the US in recent years: how to maintain bipartisan political support.

November 18, 2016 10:21
Arab women walk past a shop in Jerusalem’s Old City displaying T-shirts with images of newly elected

Arab women walk past a shop in Jerusalem’s Old City displaying T-shirts with images of newly elected President Donald Trump (L) and outgoing President Barack Obama.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that Donald Trump is a “true friend” of Israel. Education Minister Naftali Bennett claims that Trump’s victory is an opportunity to apply a “different approach” to the Arab conflict, and put an end, forever, to the dream of an independent Palestinian state.

Now contrast this with my visit this week to the United States, where I was left wondering if Israel is living in an alternate reality. Instead of celebration, the East Coast, and particularly the Jewish community there, seem overcome with anguish. On the sidelines of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Washington, for example, many Jews still seem in a state of shock, fearful over what a Trump presidency will mean for America, for American Jews, and for Israel.

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The appointment on Sunday of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist in the White House only exacerbated those concerns. A former chairman of Breitbart News, Bannon is viewed as a leader of the seemingly racist and anti-immigrant alt-right movement. His website, numerous articles in the Jewish media have claimed, served as a platform to spread what some see as antisemitic rants.

Bannon’s Jewish friends claim that he is really a Zionist and friend of Israel. The Zionist Organization of America, for example, slammed the Anti-Defamation League for criticizing Bannon, saying that he is “an American patriot who defends Israel & has deep empathy for the Jewish people.” As proof, these friends bring Bannon’s decision to open a Breitbart bureau in Jerusalem two years ago, and to place Yeshiva University graduate Aaron Klein as its manager.

The thing is that in today’s world, someone can have antisemitic tendencies and still support Israel. Just look at some of the countries with whom Israel has diplomatic ties. The governments support Israel, but then the people tend to be antisemitic. People can be drawn to Israel and its seeming nationalistic character, but at the same time speak out against Jewish control of the global media and banking system.

If there is a comparison to be made, it seems that Bannon is similar to France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is surprisingly gaining support from French Jews. These Jews seem drawn to Le Pen, following the thinking that the enemy of my enemy – radical Islam in France – is my friend.

It is understandable that in the US, Jews will feel uncomfortable with the appointment of someone like Bannon to such a high-level position. Historically, American Jews have been on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. They marched hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King Jr., and continue to fight for the rights of minorities. Someone like Bannon, who appears to support a nationalistic ideology that upends multiculturalism, is going to get people upset.

The Trump supporters whom I spoke with this week say that this is all part of a Democratic plot to delegitimize the new president. According to these supporters, it is virtually impossible to think that Trump will adhere to the values of white supremacists, considering that his daughter is a Jewish convert and his Jewish sonin- law is one of his closest advisers.

Strangely, while Jews on one side of the Atlantic remain fraught, in Israel there seems to be a post-election euphoria. But while the comments made by Bennett and other right-wing politicians are clearly an attempt to set the tone for a Trump presidency and its policies toward Israel, they should be careful.

Some Israeli diplomats and American Jewish leaders were critical of Bennett and the Right for giving Trump such a bear hug. They are worried that by making it seem that Trump is one of them, the Israeli Right may end up pushing the new administration to take steps the other way, to show that it is really objective and unbiased when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.

If that happens, a US Embassy in Jerusalem will remain a long-forgotten dream for Bennett and his colleagues.

The same criticism could be heard after Bennett insisted on bringing the controversial bill that legalizes illegal outposts like Amona to the ministerial legislative committee on Sunday, despite Netanyahu’s objections.

The committee unanimously approved the bill, which then went to the Knesset for a first reading on Wednesday, which it passed.

Some Jewish leaders in Washington expressed concern that President Barack Obama will use the approval of the bill as an excuse to take unilateral diplomatic action against Israel before leaving office on January 20.

While these leaders might be right, they are forgetting that Bennett and Netanyahu are not thinking about the effect the legislation will have on Israel’s diplomatic status. They are playing a game of political chicken. It’s like Henry Kissinger’s famous line that “Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy.”

Bennett is using Trump’s victory to be more right wing than Netanyahu, and to lock the prime minster into a corner where he will no longer have an excuse not to approve construction in West Bank settlements.

And while it is true that Bennett was the one who brought the bill to the committee, Netanyahu, if he wanted, could have stopped it at any time. All he needed to do was file an appeal in the committee against its earlier decision. As prime minister, he could then have decided to keep the bill stuck within the committee, and never let it see the light of day in the Knesset for an official vote.

So why didn’t he? Because then he would have appeared to be to the left of Bennett in their non-stop battle over the hearts of the Israeli Right. Obama gets upset? That’s just collateral damage.

Trump’s victory, however, does present Israel with another major challenge, possibly one of the greatest it has faced in the US in recent years: how to maintain bipartisan political support.

Hillary Clinton’s loss is expected to push the Democratic Party in an even more liberal, left-wing, and radical direction. Democrats were already moving away from Israel – according to a recent Pew study, while 75% of Republicans sympathize more with Israelis than Palestinians, among Democrats the margin is narrower: 43% vs 29%. Among liberal Democrats, the numbers are even more concerning: 40% sympathize more with the Palestinians, while only 33% sympathize with Israel.

This new Democratic direction seems to already be playing out with the nomination earlier this week of Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota as the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison is one of Israel’s more vocal critics on Capitol Hill.

This turn leftward will mean more than just political appointments, and could have dire consequences for Israel. Israel has always taken pride in its ability to receive bipartisan support from across the American political spectrum. As the Democratic party continues on this course, those days are numbered.

Is there anything Israel can do to stem this trend? Progress on the Palestinian front might help, but it also might not. The problem is that the trajectories of both countries are moving in different directions without points to potentially intersect. In Israel, the trend is to move Right, while in the Democratic Party the trend is to go Left. It’s a relationship that will not be easy to salvage.

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