Has the Israeli taboo on criticizing Trump finally been lifted?

Israel's Likud government showed a tactful fondness for the US president so far, but it seems that the floodgates have been opened and Israel's patience with Trump is running out.

US President Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet in New York, September 18, 2017 (photo credit: screenshot)
US President Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet in New York, September 18, 2017
(photo credit: screenshot)
Two powerful figures in the United States have recently underscored the massive gap between Israel and American Jews: US President Donald Trump and Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot.
In her humorous opening monologue on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live, Gadot joked about how the show’s writers (who include a Friedman and a Bornstein) had an unsophisticated view of Israel and had her eating hummus in every sketch.
With Trump, the differences are no laughing matter.
The Pew Research Center found that the percentage of American Jews who voted for Trump was smaller than that of any other religious group in the United States, with 71% casting ballots for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and just 24% for Trump.
By contrast, the same Pew Research Center released a study of 37 countries in June that indicated that Trump’s ratings were lower than his predecessor Barack Obama’s at the end of his term in every country surveyed except Israel and Russia. The only country in the world where confidence in Trump was significantly higher than Israel was the Philippines.
It is no wonder that whenever Trump made statements or moves that resulted in condemnation from American Jews, he was treated by Israel with kid gloves. Examples include leaking of sensitive Israeli intelligence information to Russia, reaching a deal with the Russians about Syria that gave a foothold to Iran, and a decision to delay moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem that came right after a Trump visit to Israel that was seen by Israelis as very positive.
But no issue has highlighted the differences on Trump between Israel and American Jews more than antisemitism in the US.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced criticism in August for his delayed and muted response to what police said was a deliberate car-ramming into a group of people engaged in a counter-protest against a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Netanyahu said nothing after Trump reignited controversy when he blamed both sides for the violence in Charlottesville.
One of the ministers closest to Netanyahu, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud), outraged US Jews when he told The Jerusalem Post at the time that Israel must condemn Nazis but relations with Trump are more important.
“Due to the terrific relations with the US, we need to put the declarations about the Nazis in the proper proportion,” Kara said. “We need to condemn antisemitism and any trace of Nazism, and I will do what I can as a minister to stop its spread. But Trump is the best US leader Israel has ever had. His relations with the prime minister of Israel are wonderful, and after enduring the terrible years of Obama, Trump is the unquestioned leader of the free world, and we must not accept anyone harming him.”
It has now been two months since Charlottesville, which marked the peak in official Israeli defense of Trump and, consequently, the widest gap between US Jews and Israel about the American president.
In recent days, Israeli leaders, including senior figures in Netanyahu’s Likud Party, have started sounding very different.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin opened the floodgates by criticizing the Trump administration’s handling of construction in Judea and Samaria, efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, and Trump’s saying Sunday that he wanted to try to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians before moving the embassy.
Elkin told the Post that since his criticism of the American president became noticed, it has only helped him out politically.
He received praise from countless Likud activists at Sunday’s sukka party of Transportation Minister Israel Katz, which drew some 2,000 Likudniks.
“I am not expressing the view of the prime minister, but I can’t hold back my personal view of what I see: pressure against building in Judea and Samaria, serious talk about a peace process, and not moving the embassy,” Elkin said. “It’s, of course, still better than under Obama, but on other foreign policy issues, Trump changed his country’s policies 180 degrees, and with us he unfortunately hasn’t.”
Interestingly, Elkin revealed that he has received no scolding from the Prime Minister’s Office for his criticism of Trump, nor have ministers received guidelines to watch their words, as they have in past periods of big decisions being made in Washington.
Trump must make a decision next week about decertifying the Iran nuclear deal which Netanyahu and Likud leaders love to hate.
Even on that most sensitive of issues, Elkin said he felt free to speak his mind.
“The idea that Israel must pay a price in not building so America will give Israel what it wants on Iran, which was called Yitzhar for Bushehr, was proven wrong under Obama,” Elkin said. “Stopping Iran is an American interest, so it shouldn’t be conditioned.
Obama did what he wanted to do on both issues, no matter what we did, and Trump will do whatever he thinks is right for the US, regardless of whether we build in one place or another.”
Other top Likud figures, including Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and former minister Gideon Sa’ar have followed in Elkin’s footsteps and criticized Trump.
“Trump promised to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and he didn’t promise it to us but to his voters, who know what is written in the Bible and know they have an obligation to strengthen the Jewish nation, which has returned to its homeland after so many years,” Sa’ar told members of parliament from around the world in Jerusalem.
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, one of the more moderate ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet, downplayed the apparent change on Trump among senior Likud figures.
“There is no reason to attack Trump, because anyone who had realistic expectations about him isn’t disappointed,” Hanegbi said. “We should just be happy that we can build without being scolded, that Trump’s tone on Iran is encouraging, and that at the recent conference of Palestinian donor states, America went from pushing two states to merely advocating nonpolitical economic steps.”
Hanegbi noted that in his lengthy foreign policy address at the United Nations General Assembly last month, Trump did not mention the Palestinians at all.
But event Hanegbi mocked Trump’s statement about wanting to make Middle East peace before moving the embassy.
“It will take at least a month to make peace,” Hanegbi said, in a joke he might have been more careful about making a few months ago.
If the trend of the taboo of criticizing Trump being lifted continues, Israelis and American Jews will start sounding more similar again. And perhaps bridging the gap between them would not require the superhuman powers of Wonder Woman.
But if not, there will always be hummus.