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.