November 21, 2018

Would President Donald Trump be good for Israel?

Here’s a question worth asking as Israel celebrates its 68th birthday: Would President Donald Trump be good for Israel?

If you listen to Trump, the answer is a resounding yes. He will be so pro-Israel, it will make your head spin. 

If you listen to his detractors, among whom are many leading Republican Jews, as Jewish Journal reporter Jared Sichel reports (see article on page 16), Trump would be a disaster.

The reason Trump gives for why he would be good for Israel is the same reason he gives for why he’ll be a great president, period: Because he says so.

To some, that confidence is hypnotic. It likely explains why, in an Israel Democracy Institute poll this week, fully 62 percent of Israeli Jews believe a President Trump would be committed to safeguarding Israel (though in a matchup with Hillary Clinton, 40 percent said Hillary would be better for Israel, versus 31 percent for Trump).

But American Jews on the right, center and left remain unconvinced by Trump’s endorsement of Trump’s excellence. Trump has no track record in diplomacy or government. For much of the campaign, he used the fact that he served as grand marshal of New York’s Israel Parade as his most serious bona fide. Seriously.

But now the man who, in Republican commentator David Frum’s words, is “second most likely to be the next president of the United States,” has to be taken very, very seriously. So perhaps the best way to answer the question of whether Trump would be good for Israel is to break it down into three specific questions that address what kind of president is needed for a successful American-Israeli relationship.

1. Does the president recognize Israel’s unique history and the special connection it has to the United States?

There’s no evidence in any speech Trump has given that he has any understanding of Israeli history or the history of the American-Israeli relationship. The speech he gave at the AIPAC convention in March is by far the most comprehensive record we have of Trump’s understanding of Israel and of what a Trump approach to Israel would be.  

The speech managed to avoid using the words Zionism or  Zionist.  The only way Trump was able to explain the importance of Israel to America was in his speech’s raucous conclusion: “I love the people in this room,” he said. “I love Israel. I’ve received some of my greatest honors from Israel.” In other words, Israel is important because Trump loves it, and Israel loves him back. With Trump, the personal is always political. But every administration has faced ups and downs and significant pushback and confrontation from Israel. The relationship has survived those rough patches precisely because U.S. presidents have understood there is a deeper, historic and values-based reason to protect Israel.  Nothing in what Trump said makes it clear he gets that.

2. Does the president recognize the unique external and internal threats to Israel’s security?

Trump’s AIPAC speech listed as the main threats to Israel the Iran deal, Palestinian incitement and terror, with the United Nations and President Barack Obama also competing for the top spots.

He did not mention the internal demographic threat to Israel and Israeli democracy arising from its occupation of the West Bank — a concern that has consumed Israeli and U.S. governments for 50 years.

As for what he would do about the Iran deal? He’ll make a better one. How? “We will, we will,” Trump said in his major policy address. “I promise, we will.”

Many Republican Jews are unwilling to take an untested businessman at his word.   When Trump announced that he thinks Israel should expand its West Bank settlements, the right-wing Zionist Organization of America sent out a press release trumpeting the statement. A Republican Jewish leader in Los Angeles told me he sent the ZOA a reply. “Don’t get so excited,” he wrote. “Who knows what Trump will say next week?”

3. Is the president able to use American power, influence and resources to help Israel face its threats?

The story is told that when newly elected President John F. Kennedy asked Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, how he could be the best president for Israel, Ben-Gurion told the young man, “Be the best president for the United States.”

As the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel depends mightily on the most powerful democracy in the world. A strong America makes for a strong Israel, period.

If President Obama, for instance, had not been able to bring the American economy back from collapse in 2008, imagine the conversation this country would be having now about a generous Israel aid package.

The bottom-line reason so many Republican Jews oppose Trump is precisely that: They believe he will weaken and divide America. And a weak, divided America makes for a weak Israel.

It’s why so many Republican Jews are saying #NeverTrump.  And you have to wonder: If Trump can’t even make a deal with Israel’s best friends, how’s he going make one with Israel’s worst enemies?

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.