Trump and Israel: Closer than one might think

At first blush, Trump seemed to offer reasons for concern for Israelis and American Jews.

May 18, 2016 21:32
3 minute read.
Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses AIPAC in Washington

Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Until recently Israelis did not pay much attention to Donald Trump’s unusual campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in the United States. It seemed so improbable that someone with no political experience, who had been a television celebrity and billionaire real estate maven, would at the ripe age of 69 win the nomination.

But in recent weeks, as Trump swept from victory to victory and the original field of 17 candidates was winnowed down to only three, things began to change. Now that he is assured of being the presidential nominee at the Republican convention in July, everyone is paying attention to what he stands for – or seems to stand for.

At first blush, Trump seemed to offer reasons for concern for Israelis and American Jews. His slogan of “America first” worried Israelis who remember that in the late 1930s this was the slogan of the anti-Semitic neo-isolationists.

The “America Firsters” were led by Charles Lindbergh, who admired Adolf Hitler and was given an award in Nazi Germany by Hermann Goering in 1938.

Trump has also said other disturbing things. He suggested that Israel would have to pay for US military aid itself. He talked of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in which the US would be neutral. He suggested that the US would focus mainly on its own problems and leave much of the rest of the world to fend for itself.

More recently, however, he changed course and became a pro-Israel candidate.

His talk at AIPA C’s policy conference in March was the turning point.

Trump said there that as president Israel is the first country he would visit in the region. He declared that if Israel is attacked, he would come to its defense.

He endorsed Jewish settlements in the West Bank and would move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Stating that he would stand behind Israel 100 percent, he proclaimed himself a “big fan” of Israel.

There are many reasons for this aboutface.

He needs to carry one or more of the large, traditionally Democratic- leaning states – New York, Pennsylvania and California – to win the Electoral College. Jews are particularly numerous in these states and, given their proclivity to vote, could be decisive in a close contest.

Having announced that he will not finance the next phase of his campaign, Trump needs to raise $1-1.5 billion for the fall campaign. Jews, though less than two percent of the population, typically give around one-third of the amount raised in presidential elections.

Sheldon Adelson, proclaiming that Trump is definitely pro-Israel, has announced that he will give $100 million or more to the Trump campaign.

Almost 80% of Republicans like Israel and less than 10% dislike it. Trump’s new pro-Israel stance has great appeal within the party whose votes he will badly need to become president.

His advisers on Israel are not a J Street crowd but a traditional pro-Israel group.

His two announced advisers on Israel, Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, are strong on Israel. Greenblatt, a real estate lawyer who is a modern Orthodox graduate of Yeshiva University, has been executive vice president of the Trump Organization for almost 20 years. David Friedman, a Jewish lawyer, is a leading commentator for a religious Zionist website.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka, whom he consults up to five times a day and who will run his real estate empire, converted to modern Orthodoxy. When Trump last week met Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, his number three adviser on the meeting was Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, who also feels strongly about Israel.

Trump, having spent a lifetime as a real estate investor, inevitably knows many Jews in the New York real estate world. The same could be said about the entertainment world, as he has been a reality TV star. He feels comfortable with them in a way that possibly not many Americans could duplicate.

Thus, Donald Trump has now embraced and likely will continue to embrace Israel as part of his extended family both before and after the November election.

The author is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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