The Trump tweet and Israel’s Future with U.S. Democrats

What does it mean for Israel if Trump loses his re-election bid in 2020, and a Democrat will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years?

May 29, 2019 01:22
4 minute read.
U.S. President Donald Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump. (photo credit: REUTERS/BRENDAN MCDERMID)

Everybody urinates in the swimming pool, runs a well-worn adage, but not everybody does it from the diving board.

Every US president interferes in Israeli domestic politics, goes the updated version of the above adage taking into account Israel’s current political mess, but not everybody does it from the diving board.

US President Donald Trump, being Trump, does it from the diving board. A high diving board.

The president’s tweet of encouragement to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday in his efforts to build a coalition is the latest example.

“Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation and Bibi and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever,” the president tweeted, not so subtly. He added: “A lot more to do.”

Maariv reported on Tuesday that “officials in the Israeli political system” are trying to get the White House to press Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman to be more flexible in his coalition talks with Netanyahu. Liberman may be able to withstand public pressure and the appeals of Netanyahu himself, but can he really defy the US president? That, at least, seems to be the logic.

By employing this logic, using the Trump tweet as supporting evidence in his televised appeal to Liberman on Monday night not to “bring down a right-wing government,” Netanyahu employed questionable tactics in the apparent belief that the ends justify the means.

In this case, the end is the formation of a government under his leadership, and the means is Trump’s intervention – even if that intervention could cost Israel in the long run.

Trump’s tweet came just a few days after a Gallup poll found that while 40% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Netanyahu (as opposed to 27% who do not), only 16% of Democrats are positively disposed toward the Israeli leader (his favorability rate among Republicans is 47%).

Part of the reason for this low favorability rate among Democrats is because Netanyahu is seen as too close to Trump. The syllogism goes like this: Democrats dislike Trump. Netanyahu likes Trump. Therefore, Democrats dislike Netanyahu.

The tighter the Trump-Netanyahu embrace, the greater the dislike among Democrats for the Israeli premier.

Now, some will argue that Trump has been great for Israel; that he has fundamentally changed the tone in Washington toward the Jewish state, he withdrew from the Iran deal and is actively confronting Tehran, he recognized Jerusalem and moved the embassy there and he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

What Israeli prime minister, concerned about Israeli interests, would not embrace such a US president? Which is all true.

But still, the embrace must be carefully calibrated so it doesn’t alienate the other half of America that deeply, deeply dislikes Trump. The recent Gallup poll shows that the calibration is not being done right – and that survey was taken before Trump’s most recent tweet that illustrates the degree of his closeness with Netanyahu.

Israel has benefited greatly from that closeness, but it must be careful about where and how it shows that relationship to the world. Because what happens if Trump loses his reelection bid in 2020 and a Democrat will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years, or longer?

Netanyahu, no political tyro, certainly understands and is concerned about this, though he has made few serious public or visible attempts at building bridges with the Democrats, perhaps believing that the party is now a lost cause for Israel.

But is it? Are the Democrats a lost cause?

They are if the only part of the Democratic Party that you are looking at is at the ultra-progressive wing, peopled by people like Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who skate close to antisemitism. And they are if looking at the Bernie Sanders-wing, which – like Jeremy Corbyn in Britain – has adopted the Palestinian narrative and much of its rhetoric.

But the Democratic Party is bigger than just those two camps – it also includes “moderate progressives” like Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, who are supportive of Israel but are under pressure from the progressive gatekeepers. The party includes the established wing of the party – represented by people like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer, who are strongly pro-Israel but genuinely concerned about the government’s policies. It also includes hawks like Sen. Bob Menendez, who is fiercely pro-Israel, and Democrats from red states – like West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin – who for all intents and purposes could be Republicans, including in their perspective on Israel and the Middle East.

The Democratic Party is a big tent that – if using the examples above – could be divided into six parts. Two of the parts are problematic – if not downright hostile – toward Israel, but the four others are not. And there is no need to drive the other four parts away, something that actions like the Trump pro-Netanyahu tweet has the capability of doing.

Then why do it? Why would Netanyahu trumpet the tweet in his speech to the nation on Thursday? Because Netanyahu wants to win, he wants to form a coalition and – apparently – believes that Trump’s intervention might help him do just that.

In other words, he is looking at the immediate short-term gain, and ignoring – at least for now – the long-term price.

Or, as Netanyahu’s campaign manager Ofer Golan said in a very instructive interview in Globes last week about the last election, “A campaign is something you first win, and then do damage control.”

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