Trump and Israel

The strongest reaction came from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the only Jewish candidate, who exclaimed: “Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal."

U.S. President Donald Trump  (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
U.S. President Donald Trump
Impeachment season is in full bloom. Indeed, the airways are filled with little else. The country could not be more divided. On the one side are his detractors, who constantly exclaim: “Can you imagine what he did [or said] today?” And then proceed with a full litany of his recent transgressions. But, on the other side, are his defenders, who often acknowledge his uncouth bearing and general nastiness, but say they knew what they were getting when they cast their ballot. The country needed “shaking up” from oppressive political correctness, which many found suffocating, and it would take someone like US President Donald Trump to carry out this task. And besides, his opponents had sought to impeach him from his first day in office, so their current efforts are nothing new.
A striking feature of the current proceedings is that, by all accounts, the outcome is preordained. Because the lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives, is controlled by the Democrats, and only a simple majority is needed for impeachment, the Democrats can impeach Trump on their own. However, to convict the president and drive him from office, requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate. And since the Republicans have the majority in that house, it would take at least 20 out of the 53 Republican senators to vote for conviction, which practically no one thinks is likely. So all this is largely a show to demonstrate the utter disdain so many Americans have for him.
Unfortunately, US policy toward Israel has been drawn into the mix. Trump’s secretary of state announced this week that US policy would no longer presume that “settlements” in the West Bank violated international law. That such an important shift in policy was announced at this time is hardly coincidental, despite the administration’s claims that it had been under review for a year. It represents an obvious message to his supporters – particularly Evangelical Christians, who strongly support Israel’s role in the Middle East – that whatever they might think of him, his actions are what matters. On the other hand, it had the opposite effect on the Democrats running to oppose him in the 2020 election.
The strongest reaction came from Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the only Jewish candidate, who exclaimed: “Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal...  this is clear from international law and multiple United Nations resolutions.” Former vice president Joe Biden’s statement was more tempered, noting that “this decision... takes us further away from the hope of a two-state solution, and will only inflame tensions in the region.” Even Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a strong supporter of US ties to Israel, felt compelled to state that, “once again, Donald Trump is playing politics and taking us further away from a path to the two-state solution.” The anti-Trump core of Democratic politics is such that whatever Trump says or does, is immediately disdained and countered. Unfortunately, Trump’s support for Israel comes at a high price.
Among its most unfortunate effects is to reinforce the widespread support in the US among Democrats, but not only them, for the proverbial “two-state solution.” As a friend remarked, it is not because of support for the Palestinians – or even after much reflection on what a Palestinian state would look like – but rather because of widespread apprehension that a single state would either not be Jewish or give the Palestinians an inferior status. Based on such considerations, a two-state outcome has become the Holy Grail of US policy.
Strikingly, pointing out the various instances of Palestinian rejection of that option doesn’t change these beliefs, nor does the presence of Gaza as a self-governing territory – so that the only actual option is a three-state outcome. What is unfortunate is that this Holy Grail sets the stage for so much of the policy debate.
Trump’s strength is in his willingness to upset current policy edifices, but that is his glaring weakness as well. It is that fact – more than anything else – that has led to his current predicament. And it will not serve Israel well to tie itself so strongly to such a figure.
The writer is a professor at Fielding UCLA School of Public Health, Los Angeles; and emeritus professor of economics at UC Santa Barbara.