Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump waves during his walk through at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Consider it the Israel equivalent of “I alone can fix it,” Donald Trump’s famous charge to voters at the Republican National Convention in July, after depicting an America ravaged by crime and violent extremism.
The inevitable result of a landmark nuclear deal reached last year with Iran is the destruction of Israel – “unless I get elected,” the GOP presidential nominee said in Ohio this week. “Then Israel will be just fine.”
Trump’s concerns for the security of Israel are not new: He suggested the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, poses an existential threat to the Jewish state during his remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last spring.
“Terrible, terrible situation that we are all placed in, and especially Israel,” he said of the deal negotiated by world powers, noting that Iran continues to fire off ballistic missiles – in violation of international law – meant to intimidate Israel and the West. “Painted on those missiles in both Hebrew and Farsi were the words, ‘Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth,’” he noted. “You can forget that.”
But Trump’s claim that he alone can prevent Israel’s destruction is a new proposition, offered amid a push by his campaign to attract US voters living in Israel, Jewish voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Christian Americans who prioritize Israel’s security when heading to the polls.
It raises the possibility that Trump, and his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, will increasingly use Israel as a pawn in attempting to reach Jewish voters and non-Jewish supporters of Israel.
Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, touted a Hebrew campaign sign on Tuesday – which mistranslates Trump’s catchphrase to “Make America Big Again” – as well as “Jews for Trump” paraphernalia on a plane ride between campaign events.
For perspective, Trump has opened the same number of fully operational campaign offices in the West Bank as he has in Florida and New Hampshire: One in each.
Compare that to the ground game of Clinton, who has 17 open in the Granite State and 34 in the Sunshine State.
Roughly 200,000 eligible US voters live in Israel.
The practical political benefits of stoking Israel’s existential fears are difficult to quantify, but one recent Florida poll offers clues. A survey by GBA Strategies, the only one to exclusively poll American Jewish voters thus far in the 2016 election cycle, found that only 8 percent of Florida’s likely Jewish voters prioritize Israel when voting, and a stunningly low 2% said that Iran was a top consideration.
But Jewish voters – either in the US or in Israel – are not the likely targets of Trump’s efforts.
Distrust of Iran remains a roundly popular position in American politics: In February, one month after the JCPOA was implemented, a Gallup poll found that only 14% of Americans viewed Iran favorably and just 30% approved of the nuclear accord that Clinton has cautiously endorsed.
Trump’s bashing of Iran and his blustering rhetoric on Israel may gain him support at the margins, where voters consider Iran and Israel top-priority issues. But this rhetoric more broadly serves a larger narrative of strength on issues of foreign policy and national security – two policy portfolios on which he is currently losing badly to Clinton.
A commanding 56% of Americans trust Clinton over Trump on matters of foreign policy, compared to 40% who prefer Trump, according to a CNN poll released this week.
She leads by similar margins when voters consider which candidate has the temperament to serve as commander- in-chief, and which is better equipped to handle the threat of terrorism.
In the context of national American politics, support for Israel and tough talk on Iran serve a greater purpose than simply messaging to a small group of voters, or even to Israel itself. Specifying and nuancing policy on Israel’s challenges are secondary to the immediate political imperative of tying one’s opponent to widely unpopular positions: Clinton’s foreign policy legacy in the Middle East, Trump said in a national security speech on Wednesday meant to shore up his numbers, amounts to death, destruction, metastasizing terrorist cells in Syria and Sinai and an Iran on “a glide path to nuclear weapons.”
Israel is a player in this narrative, but will remain just that – a character – throughout the construction of Trump’s political story, and until polls open in November.
To that end, Trump is proving quite successful in adapting to the sort of politics he has vowed to break apart.