With each primary victory, the debate about Donald Trump’s fitness for the presidency grows more heated. After beguiling or outraging the nation (depending on your point of view) for months, the discussion about the unexpected and often perplexing Trump phenomenon has not entirely abated, but his supporters and detractors are now finally getting down to the business of arguing about the specifics of his stands on the issues. One such argument concerns whether not only whether Trump can be considered a friend of Israel but also whether he can be judged as stronger on the issue than Hillary Clinton.
Let’s start any such discussion by recognizing that the quadrennial attempt to handicap how any presidential candidate will work with and treat Israel is a purely speculative enterprise. What people say when campaigning — especially when trying to seduce Jewish and other pro-Israel voters — often has little to do with what they’ll do once in office. We can go back decades to analyze presidential candidates and discover more than a few who ran as ardent friends of Israel and then turned out to be a horse of a very different color.
His Jewish supporters assumed Jimmy Carter would be a garden variety pro-Israel Democrat and discovered he was nothing of the kind once in the White House. Jewish Republicans had the same experience with the first President Bush. Jewish Democrats vouched for President Obama on Israel but have spent the last seven years spinning elaborate excuses for his Middle East policy. On the other hand, there are always pleasant surprises too. George W. Bush was assumed by many in the pro-Israel community to be a carbon copy of his father but turned to be such a strong friend of the Jewish state that his successor made the effort to reverse that stance and create more daylight between the U.S. and Israel a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
But given the stakes involved for Israel in preserving the alliance with the Jewish state, its friends have no choice but to think hard about a candidate’s bona fides on the issue.
Yet what is truly interesting about Trump is that his supporters are doing the opposite of what most of those whose candidates’ stand on Israel has been called into question. When it came to a candidate like Barack Obama, his backers told us to ignore his background and associations and to focus only the policy statements that his team was churning out on the Middle East. In that way, Obama’s clear animus for Israeli leaders and their policy choices as well as his desire to make friends with the Arab and Muslim world and to initiate a new détente with Iran were buried underneath boilerplate pro-Israel campaign rhetoric churned out by staffers.
But in Trump’s case, it’s just the opposite. When it comes to Israel, his supporters are at pains to tell us to ignore the things he’s said on the campaign trail. Though Trump’s foreign policy statements are generally all over the map as he improvises positions that are, at one and the same time, extremely aggressive (his threats to kick ISIS’s ass) and neo-isolationist (pull back from war on Islamist terror while conducting trade wars), he has been consistent about his stance on the peace process. There he has repeatedly vowed that he would be “neutral” with regards to Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed doubts about whether Israel was ready to take risks for peace.
Such a position makes Trump an outlier among Republicans. Virtually every other GOP presidential candidate and the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House and the Senate have affirmed their support for Israel in a way that makes clear that they believe the U.S. strongly backs Israel against the repeated Palestinian refusal to make peace. If anything, Trump’s stance strongly resembles the policy position taken by the Obama administration over the last 7+years.
That Trump would take such a stand and that he clearly harbors ambitions to make a deal between Israel and the Palestinians is not just a matter of hubris, though we know he has no shortage of that fatal trait. It shows his abysmal ignorance of even the recent history of the Middle East. Moreover, it also demonstrates that he would be at the mercy of the “really smart people” that he claims he will recruit to serve in his administration that would be advising him. That most serious Republican foreign policy experts have vowed to oppose and to never serve in a Trump administration makes it likely that his administration will be staffed either by outlier figures whose stance on Israel can’t be relied upon or, just as likely with veterans of Democratic administrations.
Against this serious deviation from the pro-Israel stance of most Republicans, we are asked to rely on Trump’s background. The fact that his daughter converted to Judaism and married into a family headed by a prominent Jewish philanthropist is supposed to outweigh his policy statements. But, like Hugh Hewitt’s belief that Ivanka Kushner will serve as her father’s “Svengali,” it’s hard to take seriously the influence of someone with no public record.
Trump’s past donations to Jewish causes during his time as a developer that earned him a spot in New York’s annual Israel Day parade one year have also allowed him to claim that he’s done more for Israel than those involved in policy work. But how much he has actually given is something we’ll never know until he releases his tax returns (which will likely never happen). And even if we did know the figures, it’s not clear what, if anything, it would mean, for future dealings with Israel. Such talk is also much like the assurances we got about Obama’s close ties with Jewish Democrats in Chicago.
Trump does assure us he would be “very pro-Israel” and would tear up the Iran nuclear deal. The latter point is encouraging but what some on the right do like about Trump is his open hostility to Muslims. That’s especially attractive to some since that seems to be the opposite of President Obama’s eagerness to make nice with the Muslim world throughout his time in office and his willingness to distance the U.S. from Israel in a vain effort to achieve that goal.
But that kind of mindless, untargeted hostility does little good for either Israel or the United States. After all, the most significant development in Israeli foreign policy in recent years has been its ability to have good relations with some Sunni countries like Egypt, Jordan and even to some extent Saudi Arabia. Trump won’t help there. Nor does an indiscriminate animus for Muslims help the U.S. build a coalition of moderates to fight the Islamists.
Others also approve of his reluctance to engage in regime change in the Muslim world that they liken to Israel’s reluctance to embrace efforts to overthrow stable Arab dictators like Bashar Assad in Syria. But Trump’s instinct to retreat from the world stage and to leave the Middle East to Russia and/or to ISIS (which he nevertheless promises to attack in a contradictory stance that makes no sense) is hardly in Israel’s interest. In essence, to the extent that he can be said to have a foreign policy, it seems to be an amalgam of the positions of the two least pro-Israel American political figures on the scene: Rand Paul and Barack Obama.
But what has to scare pro-Israel observers about Trump is his utter malleability. All of Trump’s current political convictions on just about every issue are newly minted. He has also told us that he is someone who can and will change. And given his ability to shift positions and ignore past statements, it’s beyond me as to how anyone could rely on anything he has said, good or bad, as a firm indicator of future policy choices.
And that brings in another comparison to Obama. Like Trump, we knew very little about what Obama would do. Moreover, the key characteristic about their candidacies is their belief in the magic of their personalities and talents. The two men couldn’t be more different in just about every respect. But when it comes to hubris, they are birds of a feather. Good luck to anyone who thinks they can know for sure how Trump will govern.
Of course, the argument will be made that Trump is better than Clinton, who has a problematic history on Israel which is balanced by the things she said while serving as a senator from New York and on the campaign trail now. A Clinton administration might be pro-Israel in the way of her husband’s, or it might resemble her former boss Obama. But as dismaying as the latter prospect might be, it is less of an unknown than Trump.
Like Obama’s backers who promised us that their candidate would be better than we thought, Trump supporters say the same thing with as little basis in fact. They are guessing. They might be right about his good qualities. But Jews who find it hard to believe that a man who says he would be “neutral” on the Middle East and that engages in dog whistles to bigots may be forgiven for being as skeptical about Trump as some on the right were about Obama.
Is Trump Really Pro-Israel?
Must-Reads from Magazine
Podcast: Seven theories about Jon Ossoff's loss.
We’re podcasting a day early here at COMMENTARY in order to take the measure of the result in the Georgia special House election. Abe Greenwald, Noah Rothman, and I posit seven possible theories to explain what happened—and then we attack the theories! It’s positively Talmudic. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
The following is an excerpt from COMMENTARY’s symposium on the threat to free speech:
The real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Read the entire symposium on the threat to free speech in the July/August issue of COMMENTARY here.
Hair immolation isn't a strategy.
The Democratic Party is in the midst of some soul searching after an overhyped Democratic candidate failed to flip a Republican district. For many, that soul-searching has taken the form of blame- shifting.
Buoyed by district-level polling and the abiding sense that the country was eager for an opportunity to censure President Donald Trump, Democrats became convinced of Jon Ossoff’s electability in the race to represent Georgia’s 6th District in Congress. Amid their grief over this misjudgment, Democrats are groping in search of a cause for this letdown other than their own imprudence.
The voters in Georgia’s 6th didn’t respond to Ossoff’s centrist appeals and cautious campaign, some contended. What made the difference was vicious outside attacks like one (condemned by all parties) that sought to tie the Democratic candidate to the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia last week. The notion that the affluent, well-educated, urban professionals who populate this Trump-skeptical, GOP-leaning district in the outskirts of metro Atlanta are just too redneck to vote Democrat doesn’t wash.
Others have suggested that Ossoff’s message was poorly calibrated to meet this particular moment. The Democratic candidate’s reluctance to specifically campaign against Donald Trump by name was, in their estimation, a miscalculation. “One important lesson is that when they go low, going high doesn’t f**king work,” declared Center for American Progress’ exasperated president, Neera Tanden. “In an incendiary time, Ossoff has striven to be nonflammable,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Charles Bethea. Indeed, Ossoff’s reluctance to call for Donald Trump’s impeachment and his skepticism toward progressive spending proposals led some liberals to speculate (sotto voce, of course) that this was the wrong man to pilot a “Trump-backlash trial balloon.”
Implied in these frustrated expressions of angst is the notion that Ossoff just didn’t speak the language of apocalypse to which Democrats in the age of Trump are accustomed. But this is untrue. Ossoff did speak this language. He devoted time on the trail to lecturing about the threat to American “prosperity and security” represented by climate change. “History will condemn us,” Ossoff said after Trump announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords. He cut campaign spots warning that Trump “could start an unnecessary war” and implied that he lacked the judgment to determine the appropriate response to the prospect of an incoming volley of nuclear weapons. In his concession speech, Ossoff praised his supporters for standing with him even “as a darkness has crept across the planet.” Is this what amounts to caution and prudence in the modern Democratic rhetorical catalogue?
Democrats have been remarkably reluctant to conduct any public postmortem on their party’s 2016 campaign, in part, because its members don’t believe they did anything wrong. Perhaps they are operating on the assumption that Donald Trump’s victory was some kind of fluke and the GOP’s historic majorities on the state-and federal-level were the natural results of a pendulum swing against similarly prohibitive Democratic majorities. Whatever the thinking, this reluctance has led to what may become a crippling strategic disconnect. The Democratic Party’s base and its elected representatives are not on the same page.
Jon Ossoff and his team used the unprecedented resources at their disposal to test and refine a message that was perfectly attuned to voters in Georgia’s 6th District. Despite that well-orchestrated effort, he still came up short. Democratic partisans, meanwhile, having no other indicator of their rhetorical efficacy than their hysterical friends, are convinced that their representatives are simply not fraught enough. Democratic voters, not their elected representatives, call the tune. Eventually, they’ll get what they demand.
Ossoff and the Democrats played a good hand well, but not well enough to beat the house. That happens. The risk for Democrats in this instance is to blame this losing candidate for failing to indulge their insatiable ids. It’s a risk for any party to elevate candidates for high office solely because they tickle their base voters’ erogenous zones. As The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson warned, “get ready for the Democrat version of Christine O’Donnell.” For Democrats in these overheated times, that’s a risk they seem willing to take.
A post-ISIS Potsdam Conference.
Max Boot is right: Russia is not going to risk igniting a third world war by targeting coalition aircraft over the skies of Syria. And yet it would be a mistake to ignore Moscow’s warnings. They are indicative of the unstable international environment that could become the new status quo in a world after ISIS.
As the ISIS threat is disrupted and the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria shrinks amid pressure from coalition fighters and their allies, the sovereign powers that intend to maintain their positions in the region after that conflict are asserting themselves in unpredictable and increasingly violent ways.
On Tuesday, the United States shot down an armed Iranian drone that officials said posed a direct threat to U.S.-led coalition troops on the ground in Syria. It was the second time this month that an Iranian-made military UAV was shot out of the sky after it allegedly targeted U.S.-supported forces. In a major escalation, a U.S. warplane engaged and shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter-bomber on Sunday when it reportedly bombed American-backed forces laying siege to the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa. Moscow responded to this attack on its vassal state with unnerving threats.
“From now on, in areas where Russian aviation performs combat missions in the skies of Syria, any airborne objects found west of the Euphrates River, including aircraft and unmanned vehicles belonging to the international coalition, tracked by means of Russian land and air anti-aircraft defense, will be considered air targets,” read a statement released by the Russian Ministry of Defense. The implication that Russia would target and potentially attack Western aircraft was later downgraded to a promise to escort them out of area. But the important bit wasn’t Russia’s threat but the region Moscow had defined as off limits.
By delineating the territory west of the Euphrates as beyond the scope of the anti-ISIS coalition mission, Russia has drawn the preliminary outlines of an informal Syrian partition. It is no coincidence that the two Iranian drones destroyed by coalition forces were struck near the Syrian town of al-Tanf, located on Syria’s southeastern border with Iraq. According to former Obama administration advisor and Georgetown Professor Colin Kahl, the regime wants “to own the rest of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, where they hope to link [with] Iranian-backed Shia militia.” Even if the West is not preparing for the post-conflict world, Iran, Syria, and Russia are.
The only post-war planning that appears to be on the minds of Western geopolitical architects is the need to rebuild Syria, if only to stave off a humanitarian disaster and prevent further migrations of displaced refugees into Europe. In early April, the European Union’s Federica Mogherini revealed just such a plan, contingent upon progress toward Bashar al-Assad’s abdication. This announcement was overshadowed, however, by a brutal chemical attack by regime forces on civilians—an attack that resulted in direct hostilities between the United States and the Syrian regime.
Efforts to create a post-war power-sharing framework have stalled, but the task is growing more urgent by the day. With Iran and its proxies, Russia, and Damascus on one side, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE and their proxies on another, and the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Australia presiding over all of it, theompeting interests in Syria are impossible to manage absent some kind of structure. Even when ISIS is routed and scattered, the Syrian regime seems likely to endure in some form. That alone ensures that these powers will remain at cross-purposes and, thus, that there will be no speedy troop withdrawals from the region.
The chaos in Syria is only going to get worse as the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State is contained and controlled. Great power politics is about to make a comeback in the Middle East, and the West doesn’t seem to be ready for it.
Old obsessions die hard.
On June 18, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched missiles into Syria in retaliation for a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb the previous week. While these missiles appear to have caused no casualties, Iranian officials were clear that their target went far beyond the Islamic State. According to the Tehran Times:
Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC aerospace unit, hailed the missile raids, saying any more evil act against Iran will result in “costly consequences.” “Our enemies should know that Tehran is not London or Paris,” Hajizadeh stated, a reference to the European capitals coming under numerous terrorist attacks over the past years. Iran vowed quick revenge after ISIS suicide bombers and gunmen stormed the parliament and the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini on June 7, killing 18 and injuring at least 56. In a statement released after the attacks, the IRGC vowed avenge, saying, “The spilling of any pure blood will not go unanswered.” Also, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, head of the Iranian armed forces, pledged “unforgettable lessons” to terrorists and their backers after the Tehran assault. Former IRGC chief Mohsen Rezaei tweeted, “This was just the beginning of the revenge. Harsher slap is underway.” Rezaei also called the missile attacks “the message of Iran’s authority” to “the supporters of terrorism.”
Ahmad Majidyar, an Iran analyst at the Middle East Institute and a talented Iran-watcher, noted that Rezaei tweeted, “Mr. Netanyahu, this was just the message of Zolfiqar (missile); the message of Shahab and Zelzal is much stronger!” before erasing his tweet.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry has recently been making the rounds lobbying for a Nobel Peace Prize. Last week, for example, he traveled to Norway where he sat on a podium with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. There, both criticized the Gulf Arab state and the current U.S. administration. In Kerry’s quest for the prize, he either lied about U.S. allies or leaked highly classified intelligence by detailing the (still-classified) contents of conversations. Either way, he sought to depict himself as a peacemaker when, in reality, he emboldened and resourced the main source of instability in the region. In his quest to secure an accord and to cement his own personal legacy at any strategic cost, he watered down language about Iran’s ballistic missile program. This provided Iran with cover, or at least enough legal ambiguity, to pursue its ballistic missile program.
Kerry and his team knew Iran’s aggressive intent but did not care. Numerous Iranian officials—including those surrounding Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—have pledged to develop and even use nuclear weapons. It was Hassan Rouhani, as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, who managed, resourced, and oversaw Iran’s covert nuclear program to develop such weaponry. Indeed, he subsequently bragged about it.
Despite Iran lobbyists’ efforts to suggest that former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said that Israel’s should be wiped off the map, pictures from Tehran and Iran’s own official translations tell another story. When Major-General Hassan Moghadam died in an explosion at a missile laboratory and test facility in 2011, the Iranian press reported that his last will and testament asked that his epitaph read, “The man who enabled Israel’s destruction.” A year ago, Iran tested to ballistic missiles inscribed in Hebrew with calls for Israel’s destruction.
Iran’s immediate target might have been the Islamic State, but its ideological goal remains eradication of Israel. That the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards tweeted acknowledgment of such goal should not be as easily erased as his tweet. After all, Iran deal or not, it is the Revolutionary Guards and not Zarif who are in charge of the military applications of Iran’s nuclear program.