One of Netanyahu’s familiar advertisements is a picture of him shaking President Donald Trump’s hand, both of them smiling, with the slogan “A Different League” printed underneath. The point of the advertisement is obvious: Netanyahu wants to communicate that he has a strong relationship with the American president which, of course, is good for Israel.
That Trump has been good for Israel is difficult to deny. He began the process of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, cut funding to the UNRWA, and has put forth a peace plan proposal that is more favorable to Israeli interests than the ones that were under consideration during the Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert administrations.
But two problems with Netanyahu’s advertisement need to be addressed. First, while it is true that he has cultivated strong relations with Trump, this is hardly surprising since Trump came into the job on an overwhelmingly pro-Israel platform. In other words, Trump’s strong support of Israel has little to do with an emotional attachment to Bibi.
Most of us with a good Zionist education were brought up on the story of Eddie Jacobson, the close friend of President Harry Truman, who used his influence to secure a vote for the partition plan from the United States. It is an inspiring story, but the Bibi-Trump relationship is not a parallel; Trump would doubtless be friendly with Benny Gantz or anyone else who happens to become Israel’s prime minister while he (Trump) is in office.
In fact, if anyone is Trump’s Eddie Jacobson, it would have to be his daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism, or his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who comes from an Orthodox Jewish family, or even some of Trump’s longtime business associates, who are Orthodox Jews with strong Zionist sentiments.
But the truth is that Trump’s support of Israel is not simply a personal connection but has to do with his ideology. Trump’s campaign emphasized the danger of radical Islam, and one of his first acts as president was Executive Order 13769—the so-called “Muslim ban”—which blocked people entering America from seven Muslim countries. As Israel has long been involved with the battle against radical Islam—something Israel has no choice but to fight—they are a natural ally in Trump’s mind.
Another ideological connection has to do with business and success. There is little Trump respects more than successful business people and little he derides more than what he might call freeloaders. Thus, it is not surprising that, as he sees things, money given to successful Israel feels like an “investment,” while money given to poverty-stricken Palestinians in Gaza feels more like “handouts.”
But perhaps the most important reason Trump supports Israel has to do with his base. Trump ran as a Republican, a party which is overwhelmingly pro-Israel nowadays. Partly, this has to do with the same ideological stances I noted above, but it also has to do with a religious belief, popular among evangelical Christian voters in the past two decades, that Jewish success in Israel is a step leading to the second coming of Jesus. I doubt whether Trump himself believes this, but much of his constituency does, which is a good motivating factor on policy for any politician.
This point leads to the second problem with Netanyahu’s advertisement. As successful as Bibi has been at nurturing the relationship between Israel and the Republican party, he has done so at the cost of our relationship with the Democratic party. This is a point that Yair Lapid of Blue and White has been making continuously throughout the (three!) election campaigns this year.
In a talk to English speakers about a year ago, hosted by TOI, Lapid noted that Bibi’s speech to the US congress against Obama’s Iran policy, and his lecturing of the American president on the subject, isolated Democrats. Even worse, Bibi’s use of some of this imagery during his campaigns feels to Democrats like a deliberate insult.
Since America is both Israel’s greatest ally and the most powerful country in the world, it behooves us to have a political strategy that keeps Israel in a good relationship with the US irrespective of which party is in power. Unfortunately, I worry that Likud has become complaisant on this issue, and that this may boomerang against us very soon.
Human memory is short, and although three years ago, almost everyone was certain that Hillary Clinton would be president and that Donald Trump didn’t have a chance, Trump won, and now many pundits see a second term for Trump as a foregone conclusion.
Now, Hillary Clinton as president would not have been a difficult challenge for an Israeli prime minister to work with, since she, like her husband Bill, is vocally pro-Israel (though admittedly, not as heavily calibrated toward Israel’s positions as Trump). But she was the nominee in 2016… ancient history. The front runner for Democratic nominee in 2020 is Bernie Sanders.
If Sanders gets the nomination, he will be the first Jewish nominee for either party, which on one level is exciting. Nevertheless, a President Sanders will be a severe challenge for any prime minister, since he is highly critical of Israel. In his case, this is not personal—he is a Jew and not of the anti-Zionist-from-birth variety—but ideological.
Sanders believes in the underdog, and in 2020, the underdog is not Israel, the 8th most powerful country in the world, but the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Moreover, he is unforgiving of crude political tactics such as Bibi’s “Arabs on buses” announcement, which has prompted him to call Netanyahu “a reactionary racist.”
Now, I don’t think Netanyahu is a racist, but he is not above playing the racist card, which to Bernie may be the same thing. Whether or not this is fair, and whether or not the positions of Bernie Sanders and many of his left-leaning democratic colleagues on Israel are well thought out or reasonable, come January 2021, he may be the person Israel needs to deal with. For those who think this is impossible, I remind you again that in 2016, Donald Trump was impossible, and now he is president.
Even if Sanders is not the next US president, and America re-elects Donald Trump, we Israelis need to put aside puerile slogans such as “a different league” and turn our attention to the necessity of making Israel a bi-partisan issue again. Regrettably, this appears to be an agenda item with which Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud party have little interest or sympathy at present.