Analysis: Donald Trump, Israel and the Jews

The controversial Republican candidate will find it difficult to leverage his pro-Israel positions to gain Jewish votes.

Donald Trump (photo credit: REUTERS)
Donald Trump
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE DONALD Trump phenomenon is challenging both Israel and American Jewry.
Trump, who continues to lead the Republican list of presidential hopefuls and can no longer be dismissed as a bizarre candidate, has consistently and strongly supported Israeli positions on many critical issues, including the Iran nuclear deal and Israeli- Palestinian relations. He has also criticized US President Barack Obama for his attitudes toward Israel and warmly praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the other hand, he has proposed policies and made statements that no Jew can in good conscience accept or identify with.
Trump has often used pro-Israel rhetoric.
He called Israel America’s best and most reliable friend, and argued that it should be viewed as the cornerstone of US policy in the Middle East. He has accused Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry of “selling Israel out,” and said that the US should do everything possible to protect and defend it. “They’ve always been there for us and we should be there for them,” he declared.
“They are the only stable democracy in a region that is not run by dictators. They are pioneers in medicine and communication and a close fair trading partner.” And, like his father, he said, he had always been loyal to Israel and “would do more for Israel than anybody else.”
Trump highlights the facts that he served as grand marshal for the Israel parade in New York in 2004 and that he has received many awards from American Jewish organizations for his support of Israel. Last February, on receiving such an award from the Algemeiner, a Jewish news organization, he said, “We love Israel. We will fight for Israel 100 percent, 1,000 percent. It will be there forever.” On June 16, when he declared his candidacy, Trump vehemently attacked the Iran nuclear deal calling it “a disaster” that could threaten Israel’s survival.
In the background, there was also a close personal connection between Trump and Netanyahu. Before the 2013 Israeli election, Trump recorded a 30-second video message endorsing the Likud leader. “You truly have a great prime minister in Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s a winner, he’s highly respected, he’s highly thought of by all. Vote for Benjamin – terrific guy, terrific leader, great for Israel,” he enthused.
On the other hand, Trump’s statements on prisoners of war, Jewish campaign contributions, immigration and entry to the US have touched on a very raw Jewish nerve.
On John McCain, who spent six years as a POW in Vietnam and refused early release when his captors discovered that his father was an admiral, Trump flippantly said he was “a war hero only because he got captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
In Israel the nation as a whole cares about its POWs and the government invests huge resources in attempts to release them. The protracted and ultimately successful effort to free Gilad Schalit, a soldier who was captured and held hostage for five years by Hamas in Gaza, well illustrates this ethos.
On December 3, Trump told members of the Republican Jewish Coalition that he suspects many members won’t back him because he is rich and doesn’t want their contributions.
Trump may have thought he was making a joke, but the Israeli media saw his comments as reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotyping of Jews as rich people who “control the world” and can “buy” elections with their money.
Trump has also made highly provocative and controversial statements on immigration and entry to the US. On June 16, he said that Mexico is sending in people bringing drugs, crime and rape. Later he extended this observation to include immigration from other Latin American countries. And after the recent San Bernardino massacre, he called for a temporary ban on the entry of Muslims to the US, until the government figures out “what the hell is going on.”
Jews, who have suffered from closed immigration gates and been saved by open ones, find these statements appalling. Mass Jewish immigration from Russia and Eastern Europe to the US, Palestine and other countries, especially from the beginning of the 20th century, saved Jews from pogroms, persecution and oppression. Mass Jewish immigration from the Arab countries to Israel after the 1948 War of Independence saved them from a similar fate. On the other hand, before, during and immediately after the Second World War, Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany or occupied Europe were refused entry to many countries, including the US.
Millions perished. Therefore, Jews cannot but protest a wholesale, religion-based ban on entry to the US. Indeed, many Jewish organizations in the US, as well as political and religious groups in Israel, overwhelmingly rejected Trump’s call for a ban on the entry of Muslims to the US.
TRUMP HAD intended to visit Israel and meet Netanyahu on December 28. The parties had agreed on the itinerary two weeks before Trump’s Muslim ban statement. Thirty- seven Knesset members, all but two from the opposition, strongly criticized Trump’s proposed blanket ban on Muslim entry and urged Netanyahu to cancel their meeting in protest. Netanyahu rejected this demand but issued a critical statement of his own: “The State of Israel respects all religions and strictly guarantees the rights of all its citizens. At the same time, Israel is fighting against militant Islam that targets Muslims, Christians and Jews alike and threatens the entire world.” His office went on to explain his policy on meeting presidential candidates.
“The Prime Minister decided earlier this year on a uniform policy to agree to meet with all presidential candidates from either party who visit Israel and ask for a meeting.” It further clarified that “this policy does not reflect support for the candidates or their policies, but rather expresses the importance that the Prime Minister attributes to the strong alliance between Israel and the United States.” However, in response to the critical furor in Israel, Trump postponed his visit until after the presidential elections, claiming that he did not want to place Netanyahu “under pressure.”
Trump had hoped his visit to Israel on the eve of the Republican primaries would bolster his lead in the race. He wanted to project interest and knowledge in national security and foreign affairs, especially in the Middle East, the No. 1 source of violence, terrorism and instability in the world. He also wanted to garner legitimacy for his controversial positions on the region, and to contrast his support for Israel with what he called the Obama administration’s abandonment of the Jewish state. The strategy made sense, but the injudicious Muslim ban statement undermined any chance of successfully implementing it. Had Trump stuck to his plan, the protests and demonstrations in its wake would almost certainly have rendered it counterproductive.
Trump has certainly been exploiting the weaknesses and confusion in Obama’s handling of Israel, Islamic extremism and terrorism.
The president’s blaming only Israel for the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has only strengthened Palestinian recalcitrance. The delay in defining the San Bernardino massacre as terrorism, Obama’s refusal to use the term “Islamic terrorism” and his pathetic attempts to characterize the Islamic State organization as non-Muslim reveal an acute denial of both American and Middle Eastern realities.
disappointed by Obama
Indeed, American Jews have been disappointed by Obama. In the 2008 elections, they voted for him by a ratio of 78 percent to 22 percent; in 2012, this had dropped to 69 percent to 30 percent. Gallup’s surveys show that in 2008, 71 percent of American Jews identified themselves as Democrats or leaning to the Democratic Party, while 22 percent identified themselves as Republicans or leaning to the Republican party. In 2014, this ratio dropped to 61 percent to 29 percent.
Over the past decade, Republicans have generally been more supportive of Israel than Democrats. The trend began around 2000, almost 10 years before Netanyahu was reelected prime minister. Nevertheless, none of this is likely to help Trump. Most American Jews will still vote for the Democratic nominee. If Trump is selected as the Republican candidate, even more American Jews are likely to vote for his opponent.
After Obama, Netanyahu would have liked to see a Republican in the White House. Nevertheless, despite his strong pro-Israel stance, given his character and controversial positions, Donald Trump may not be the best choice to repair American- Israeli relations in the post-Obama era.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa is director of the Center for International Communication and a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.