Reevaluating Trump’s legacy as a friend of Israel

Even Netanyahu is no longer shamelessly fanning the US president’s ego

Us President Donald Trump uses a speakerphone to talk with leaders of Israel and Sudan, in the Oval Office at the White House last month. (photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
Us President Donald Trump uses a speakerphone to talk with leaders of Israel and Sudan, in the Oval Office at the White House last month.
(photo credit: CARLOS BARRIA / REUTERS)
US President Donald Trump has been “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.” None of the previous occupants of the Pennsylvania Avenue residence have even been “close” in their support of Israel over the 70-plus year history of the Jewish state.
For once, this outrageous lie, made at the beginning of the year, did not come from the lips of Trump himself, but from our own prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose own well-earned reputation for mendacity predates the Trump era (see French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2011 remark to Barack Obama: “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar”).
As the son of a noted historian, Netanyahu, of course, knew better. Democratic president Harry Truman, one of the outstanding presidents in modern US history, is the leader who truly deserves the accolade of Israel’s greatest friend in the White House.
The first world leader to officially recognize Israel as a legitimate Jewish state, only 11 minutes after its creation, Truman did so in the face of fierce opposition from many of his close colleagues, particularly secretary of state George Marshall.
The later tensions between Truman and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, over the Palestinian refugee issue do not detract from the vital importance for Israel’s future of that immediate US recognition of the fledgling Jewish state.
As Ron Kampeas, in a series of articles two years ago for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency marking Israel’s 70th anniversary, pointed out, other American presidents have also played crucial roles in securing Israel’s place in the world, including less celebrated leaders such as Lyndon B. Johnson.
Not only was Johnson the first president to invite an Israeli prime minister on a state visit to Washington, he also increased arms sales to Israel and abandoned US pressure over the Dimona reactor. After France slapped its weapons embargo on Israel in 1968, Johnson was the president who led the United States to become Israel’s largest military supplier, providing Israel with its qualitative edge over its enemies.
It is only now, some half a century later, that this military advantage is in danger of being eroded following Trump’s decision, with Netanyahu’s cavalier acquiescence behind the backs of Israel’s defense establishment, to sell advanced F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates.
Even among Republican leaders, it’s also far from clear that Trump has been the most pro-Israel president. Disgraced president Richard Nixon, for example, deserves a special place in the pantheon of Israel’s friends in the White House.
It was Nixon who came to Israel’s rescue in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. His authorization of a massive arms airlift during the war kept the IDF supplied and able to continue fighting. His close adviser Henry Kissinger argued against the move, wanting to give the Egyptians a chance to save face to improve the chance for peace in the war’s aftermath, but Nixon pushed ahead, even at the risk of igniting a conflict with the Soviet Union, Egypt’s main backer.
Nixon’s support for Israel came at a huge cost to the United States, as it sparked the Arab oil embargo in the mid-1970s, severely damaging the US economy. Can anybody envisage Trump coming to Israel’s aid, no matter the gravity of the situation, if it even slightly threatens his America First agenda?
Trump supporters will point to the many pro-Israel positions he has taken, but most have come at no cost to his presidency and served mainly to bolster his standing among one of his most important group of supporters: the Evangelical Christian Right. The move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem is one such example: it delighted his faith-based supporters but achieved little else.
The jury, meanwhile, is still out on a more meaningful election pledge kept by Trump – the scrapping of the Iranian nuclear accords, one of the major diplomatic achievements of the Obama presidency. By unilaterally abrogating a multinational agreement, Trump weakened the power of America’s word in the world and, more worryingly, pushed Tehran to resume production of enriched uranium.
The peace deal and normalization accords sponsored by Trump between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, although welcome, pale in significance when compared to the groundbreaking peace treaty with Egypt, which was possible due only to Jimmy Carter’s determination, or the peace agreement with Jordan, signed under the auspices of Bill Clinton, and made possible by the Oslo Accords.
Revealingly, Netanyahu is reeling in his fawning over the present American president, given that a Joe Biden victory this week is looking like more than a possibility. When Trump sought an election endorsement from the prime minister last month after the announcement of the beginning of normalization talks between Israel and Sudan, Netanyahu demurred.
“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi, Sleepy Joe,” Trump asked Netanyahu in an Oval Office phone call to which he invited reporters. “Do you think he would have made this deal? Somehow I don’t think so.”
“Well, Mr. President,” Netanyahu replied, “one thing I can tell you is that we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America, and we appreciate what you’ve done enormously.”
Belatedly, reality is setting in in Jerusalem, and a much-needed reevaluation of Trump’s real role in Israel’s history is beginning to take shape.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.