We know that Donald Trump’s followers see him as the agent of change who will overturn the political establishment. But as I pointed out earlier today, he is actually a status quo candidate whose positions are eerily similar to those of the Democrats when it comes to key fiscal issues such as entitlement reform. Yet that’s not the only issue where there is continuity between Trump and the party of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. After the last few decades in which strong support for Israel had become almost uniform among Republicans while Democrats are interested mainly in creating “daylight” between the U.S. and the Jewish state, Trump would reverse that trend.
Last night in his appearance on a town hall event broadcast by MSNBC, Trump told Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski that he wasn’t prepared to take sides in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
When pressed on who is at “fault” for the failure to reach an agreement, Mr. Trump said he didn’t want to say. “Because if I do win, there has to be a certain amount of surprise, unpredictability, our country has no unpredictability. If I win, I don’t want to be in a position where I’m saying to you, and the other side now says, ‘We don’t want Trump involved, we don’t want … ‘
“Let me be sort of a neutral guy, let’s see what — I’m going to give it a shot. It would be so great.”
This is not the first time Trump has signaled that, in contrast to all of the other 2016 Republican presidential candidates with the exception of Rand Paul, he would not prioritize the alliance with Israel. In a December interview with the AP, Trump called himself a “big, big fan” of the Jewish state. But then he spoke of his ambition to broker a Middle East agreement and wondered whether Israel would be willing to “sacrifice” in order to make peace.
That statement demonstrated Trump’s appalling ignorance of the last 20 years of peace processing, during which Israel had made great sacrifices and repeatedly offered the Palestinians peace only to be rejected each time. The MSNBC remarks build on this ignorance. Though he said he had been told about the Palestinian teaching of hate against Israel and the Jews, he professed neutrality. He wanted, he said, not to be viewed as being one side or another before he sought to cut the Gordian Knot of Middle East peace.
If that point of view sounds familiar, it should. It is more or less the same stance enunciated by President Obama when he entered the White House. Obama thought the most important thing he could do would be to reverse the policies of the Bush administration that he thought were too pro-Israel. He wanted to create more “daylight” between the two allies. Though Obama has not kept all of his promises, he succeeded with that one. U.S.-Israel relations are at their lowest point in a generation. Obama spent years trying to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, even though they were clearly not interested in peace. And he pursued détente with Iran, concluding a nuclear deal that will ensure that it eventually gets a bomb.
Trump may oppose the nuclear deal but he seems to be very much on the same page as the president with respect to neutrality about Israel. He also would arrive in the Oval Office with similar illusions about the peace process. Obama believed the magic of his personality could bring peace to the region. Trump thinks his magical deal making skills could do the trick. Neither understood the history of the region or why Palestinians continue to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. The impact of Trump’s ego on the situation would be as dangerous as that of Obama’s.
In the December issue of COMMENTARY, we explored the evolution of the two parties with respect to Israel. I wrote about how Democrats had gone from being the reliably pro-Israel party to one where its base — and its leader President Obama — was at best neutral and at times hostile. Tevi Troy discussed how the Republicans had been transformed from a party one that was largely indifferent to the Jewish state to an almost uniformly pro-Zionist.
As he is on so many other issues, with respect to Israel, Trump is the outlier in the Republican Party. It’s not just that he speaks of being neutral. Unlike the other leading candidates, such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, Trump also seems to have no firm knowledge of the conflicts in the Middle East or an understanding of why peace efforts have failed in the past. But in his instinct for being “neutral,” he seems to be more in line with the prevailing view about Israel among the base of the Democrats than with the way the overwhelming majority of Republicans think about the Jewish state.
Trump’s position is not just a betrayal of the pro-Israel beliefs of most Republicans. It’s also a formula for more Middle East conflict. Trump’s ambition to do a big deal would lead the U.S. down the same garden path that others have trod with similar results. Bargaining skills are meaningless in the face of Palestinian intransigence and hate. Peace will come when there is a sea change in Palestinian opinion that will enable their leaders to end the conflict once and for all.
Ignorance and an unwillingness to learn from the past is no match for Trump’s ambitions. While he might not harbor the malice for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that animates President Obama, a Trump administration would be little different from that of Obama or of one led by Hillary Clinton. The vast majority of Republicans are not “neutral” when it comes to Israel. But if the polls are correct, they are on track to nominate a presidential candidate who would seek to reverse the GOP’s evolution to being the pro-Israel party and align it more closely with the views of left-wing Democrats.