How Trump can win over Israelis

Perhaps he won’t move the US Embassy, but there is one thing he could do to heal his impression on Israelis.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu meet at the Trump tower
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
‘What separates the winners from the losers is how a person reacts to each new twist of fate,” future US President Donald Trump tweeted philosophically in September 2014.
Since then, Trump clearly proved himself a winner, building a successful campaign and starting his really huge job at the White House.
But winning a presidential election is arguably a small challenge compared to his latest goal of solving the Middle East conflict. After all, 45 men have done the former and none has done the latter.
Trump will embark on a key step toward that goal Monday when he arrives in Israel. Just by setting foot in this country on his first visit abroad as president, he will already gain an advantage over his predecessor, Barack Obama, who came here four years too late.
Obama lost the support of Jewish Israelis by skipping over Israel on his first trip abroad, preferring to go to Cairo, where he compared Palestinian suffering to the Holocaust. The televised dispute between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their first White House meeting did not endear the president to them either.
A Smith Research poll taken for The Jerusalem Post just before those two events happened found that the percentage of Jewish Israelis who considered the Obama administration more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian was 31%, while 14% considered it more pro-Palestinian.
One month later, after what happened in Washington and Cairo, the percentage of Jewish Israelis who said more pro-Palestinian had risen to 50% and the percentage who said the Obama administration was more pro-Israel was only 6%.
That drop in support among Israelis from 31% to 6% is pretty hard to duplicate. But Trump has come pretty close.
The two polls Smith has taken of Trump have found that the percentage of Jewish Israelis who consider his administration more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian has fallen from 79% on January 11 to 56% on May 17.
Obama never succeeded in obtaining the support among Israelis that Trump still has now.
He tried to by coming to Israel at the start of his second term. On that visit, he repeatedly spoke Hebrew, telling Israelis “You are not alone” in their tongue.
That March 2013 visit was carefully choreographed to make up for the mistakes of his first trip abroad and to correct his implication in his Cairo speech that Israel exists because of the Holocaust.
“The State of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of the State of Israel, there will never be a Holocaust again,” Obama said at Yad Vashem.
He also laid a wreath next door on Mount Herzl and visited the Dead Sea Scrolls to affirm the deep historical connection between the people and the Land of Israel.
After the plunge in his popularity here, Trump will also have to take steps to reach out to Israelis.
The reasons for the drop in their support for him are obvious.
Israelis don’t like it when anyone questions whether Israel controls the Western Wall, as officials in his administration did this week. Reports that Trump’s leak of Israeli intelligence information to Russia endangered an Israeli spy planted within Islamic State did not help his cause.
Trump-Abbas meeting in Washington. (Reuters)
His meeting in the White House with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas looked too chummy for Israelis. And Israelis really don’t like it when politicians break promises to them, as Trump would if he – as expected – signs a presidential waiver preventing the US Embassy from being moved to Jerusalem for six months.
“We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem,” candidate Trump said in his March 2016 speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.
In that speech, Trump made other promises to Israelis. Keeping them could be a good first step toward regaining their support.
“When the United States stands with Israel, the chances of peace rise exponentially,” Trump said in the speech. “That’s what will happen when Donald Trump is president of the United States.”
Following the promise of the embassy moving and plenty of applause, Trump revealed his approach to peacemaking in the Middle East.
“We will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, Israel,” he said. “The Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the US and Israel is absolutely, totally unbreakable. They must come to the table willing and able to stop the terror being committed on a daily basis against Israel. They must do that. And they must come to the table willing to accept that Israel is a Jewish state and will forever exist as a Jewish state.”
History has proven that Israelis are indeed more willing to make concessions for an American president they trust and see as warm to them. Keeping his promise that the Palestinians would be welcomed at the negotiating table only if they recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state could go a long way toward winning their hearts.
Trump won’t let Netanyahu accompany him to the Western Wall. But by going there, he is at least reaffirming its connection to the Jewish people after UNESCO denied it.
Emphasizing issues of consensus between him and Israel, such as preventing the nuclearization of Iran, could also help.
But there is one card Trump can play that could automatically regain support among Israelis from across the political spectrum.
Unlike moving the embassy, playing the card would not upset Arab leaders at a time he wants to involve them in peacemaking.
Trump could announce during the visit that he will intervene in the Jonathan Pollard case and allow the Israeli spy to move to Israel.
Pollard was back in court this week in an effort to ease the parole conditions that keep him in New York after having served 30 years in prison for spying for Israel. The judges are expected to rule in the next two months about whether to recommend to his parole commission to reconsider the conditions.
But at any point, the Trump administration could allow Pollard to get on a plane and come here. He could commute Pollard’s sentence to time served or put him under the jurisdiction of the Israeli justice system.
“Pollard is being brought up by the right people close to the president,” a source involved in efforts to bring the spy to Israel said. “If Trump sits down with key people and says what do I do [to gain support among Israelis], I have gotten the impression that Pollard’s name will be on the agenda.”
With the overwhelming support for Pollard among Israelis across the political spectrum, allowing him to come home to Israel could be a winning way for Trump to react to his new twist of fate.