A week before the January 2013 Israeli election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a surprising endorsement from American real estate mogul Donald Trump.
Trump released a video in which he called himself “a big fan of Israel” and Netanyahu “a great prime minister,” a “terrific guy,” and “a winner.”
“I think he would have been a great president of the United States,” Trump said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post at the time. “I have great respect for Netanyahu. He has a tremendous understanding of Israel and where it’s going. His voice is respected. I don’t think he has a bad relationship with Democrats, and he has the respect of the president.”
Netanyahu has been careful not to speak about the current American election campaign, so he will not return the favor with a video endorsing Trump to succeed President Barack Obama.
The man who organized the video endorsement and the interview was 30-year-old British-born public relations phenom Jonny Daniels, who runs the Holocaust commemoration organization From The Depths and is arguably the Israeli closest to Trump.
Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for president this week, following the departures of rival candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
He made many Israelis feel uneasy when he called himself neutral on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, but in an interview on Wednesday Daniels said people who care about the Jewish state should not fear a Trump presidency.
“It is very good news for Israel that he will be the Republican candidate for president, because we really do have a good friend in Donald Trump,” Daniels said. “I’m not sure people realize who he is beyond his media persona. He is a politician playing politics, and there are certain things you do and say for votes, and if it’s inflammatory so be it. Netanyahu and Obama have also reached out to their voter base, and that’s what Trump has been doing.”
Daniels got to know Trump through friends who worked for him. He has met him numerous times in different capacities at his Trump Tower office and on golf courses. Daniels is close to Trump’s staff, with whom he is meeting in New York this weekend.
“The Donald Trump I know is thoughtful, strong-willed and an incredibly smart person,” Daniels said. “He reads people and situations and, most importantly, doesn’t give up. He will fight for Israel and – just as important for Israel – fight for the USA. A strong America is a strong Israel. Over the past eight years, there has been a massive decrease in American strength, and as the US’s great ally that has been a significant problem for us.”
When Trump and Daniels have met, the former has asked the latter questions about how Israelis feel, as well as deep queries about Iran and other key issues on the public agenda. Daniels tried to organize the first-ever visit by Trump to Israel, but scheduling did not work out.
“In my conversations one-on-one with Mr. Trump, he gets it,” Daniels said. “You can base it on the questions he asks.
They are in-depth questions. This is a guy who truly understands our side of the conflict. He asked deep questions about Iran, because we are friends, and I am sure he talks to security experts as well.”
When Daniels did not have the answers, he connected Trump to those who did and arranged for him to meet four years ago with then-Likud MK and current ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon.
“He didn’t base his foreign policy on what I told him,” Daniels said. “He talks to people smarter than me. But it’s good that he talks to a father of two girls who lives in Israel and deals with the issues day to day.”
Daniels dismisses Trump’s “neutral” statement as him just “trying to be careful.”
He said Trump has been wise to speak about Israel in formal settings with teleprompters in order to avoid making mistakes.
“He is smart enough to understand that a peace deal wouldn’t be brokered over night,” Daniels said. “When we look at his true understanding of the concerns facing Israel, we have to see it promisingly. He was vehemently against the Iran deal before he thought he would be running for president.
He knows Israel is a complicated issue, and the fact that he knows you can’t shoot from the hip on it is something you should look at it in a positive light.”
Criticizing Trump’s competition in the race, Daniels said “anyone who doesn’t think Hillary Clinton will be a continuation of Obama is living on a different planet.”
Daniels said Israelis can be reassured that Trump surrounds himself with “strong, tough people, and it just so happens that a lot of them happen to be Jewish.” He singled out attorney Michael Cohen, who sits in the office next to Trump. Cohen’s parents were survivors of Auschwitz, and Daniels said he has an incredible affinity for Israel.
The campaign video for Netanyahu was Daniels’s idea when he was in touch with the prime minister’s campaign team in 2013.
“I came to them with the idea of having US celebrities endorse Netanyahu,” he recalled. “When I asked him [Trump], he was incredibly happy. I didn’t tell him what to say. He knew exactly what to say. At the time, he wasn’t running for anything. Had he been a candidate for president, I wouldn’t have asked for the endorsement. Israel does not get involved in internal US politics, and I don’t know who Bibi backs now.”
Daniels said Trump’s image as a racist and a hater of women is “utter nonsense and political spin.”
“Israelis across the political spectrum in Israel should not be worried about a Trump presidency for Israel,” he said.
“He is the furthest thing from a racist that I know. There are plenty of Republicans who would worry me a lot more, because they see things as biblical prophesies.”
Another factor Daniels believes Israelis should keep in mind is Trump’s connection to Judaism through his daughter Ivanka, who went through an Orthodox conversion, and his son-in-law, businessman Jared Kushner. Daniels attended a Shabbat meal hosted by the couple in New York two years ago and heard from them about their father’s ties to their faith.
“He is someone who understands our traditions,” Daniels said. “Just like Obama grew up in traditional Muslim settings, Trump has gained an appreciation of traditional Judaism.”
Daniels said Trump attends Shabbat dinner with the Kushners monthly, sitting silently as his grandchildren sing “Shalom Aleichem” and – as is customary – not uttering a word between hand-washing and the “Hamotzi” blessing over bread. He also pointed out the plaques on Trump’s office wall thanking him for his support of yeshivot and his serving as grand marshal of the Israel Day Parade after September 11, 2001.
Because of his ties with Trump, Daniels has been approached by Israeli television channels and people with political and real estate ideas, such as opening a Trump resort in Beersheba.
“That’s not the relationship I have with him,” he said. “Trump is not my best friend. He is someone I look up to.”
But Daniels said he does not intend to join the Trump campaign and would not move to Washington, even if offered a role in a Trump administration.
“I’m very happy in the work that I do in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive,” he said. “There are many people who can work in a campaign or in an administration. I have two beautiful daughters who I want to be with. Dude, I love Israel. I’m not going anywhere.”