January 27, 2020

Israelis and Trump: A Guide to The Complicated Relationship

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Is President Donald Trump good for Israel? In recent months, that question has become more frequent, urgent and difficult to answer. Many Israelis have begun to worry about the stated support of the president. His abandonment of the Kurds in Syria hinted that he might not be as committed as Israel wants him to be. His lack of action after Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia might hint that he isn’t quite reliable as an ally in a time of need. His cozy dialogue with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might hint that Trump doesn’t see a world in which the better regimes deserve more support. 

Israelis look at Trump and wonder about him. Sure, they know he moved the embassy to Jerusalem, and called Iran’s bluff, and recognized Israel’s jurisdiction over the Golan Heights, and yet when asked if Israel’s security is a central consideration for the president as he forms American Mideast policy, many hesitate. Two years ago, when the question was asked by the Israel Democracy Institute, more than half of the Jews (51%) and two-thirds of the Arabs (67%) in Israel said yes. But their confidence has declined. Today, only one-third of the Jews (35%) and just slightly more Arabs (39%) have this view. 

Does this mean Israel no longer will cheer Trump during his reelection bid? Here, the story becomes more complicated because there are two ways for Israelis (or any outsiders) to view Trump. 

One way is to look at him separately — to ask questions such as: Is he good for us? Will he protect us? Can we trust him? When these questions are asked, it’s easy to see that Israel today is less in awe of the president than it was before.

Another way — and the more appropriate of the two — is to view Trump with a comparative outlook. When one does that, the questions change to: Is he better for us than other candidates? Will he protect us more than other candidates? Can we trust him more than we trust other candidates?

Consider Iran. Consider the fact that Israel — official Israel — looks with apprehension at the Americans’ lack of response to Iranian attacks. A drone was shot down, nothing happened. Missiles flew, nothing happened. You’d have to forgive Israel if it comes to the conclusion that if or when Iran decides to act, Israel will be on its own. Now, consider the alternative: Is a U.S. led by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden more likely to take a bold stand against Iran? You’d have to forgive Israel if it comes to the conclusion that the answer is no. Democratic leaders already clarified that their intention is simple: To go back to the understandings of the Iran nuclear deal. In other words: To let Iran score a clear victory. 

It is likely that Israel is going to find itself grudgingly rooting for Trump.

Consider the fact that three leading Democratic candidates recently hinted that they might cut U.S. military aid to Israel unless Israel changes its policy toward the Palestinians. “It is the official policy of the United States of America to support a two-state solution, and if Israel is moving in the opposite direction, then everything is on the table,” Warren said. The question is: What constitutes the “opposite direction?” Would President Warren cut aid to Israel if the Palestinians complain about construction of neighborhoods in east Jerusalem? Sanders has said that “if you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship [to Gaza].” 

The question again: What constitutes a change of relationship to Gaza? One would have to remind President Sanders that Israel’s current policy vis-à-vis Gaza is relatively mellow. In fact, Israel’s opposition — the centrist Blue and White opposition — argues for more aggressive policies in Gaza. So the policy Sanders might encourage is one that no one within the Israeli mainstream supports. 

Taking the second approach of comparative assessment of the candidates, Trump suddenly seems a little more appealing to Israelis. In fact, it is quite likely that Israel is going to find itself grudgingly rooting for him, because when it comes to Middle East policies, his Democratic opponents seem to have most of his deficiencies, and then some.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.