Steve Sheffey
Pro-Israel writer and activist

Trump is bad for Israel: Here’s why

Israel is worse off than it was four years ago. Trump’s policies have increased Israel’s two existential threats–Iran is closer to nuclear weapons than when he took office and Israel is further from a two-state solution than when he took office. 

The Iran Deal was working, but Trump walked away while Iran was still in compliance. Then his “maximum pressure” strategy failed, his efforts at the UN to continue the arms embargo against Iran failed, and his efforts at the UN to snapback sanctions against Iran failed.

Trump accomplished nothing, and now Iran is closer to nuclear weapons than when Trump left the deal. Unless you think Iran has been kidding around about wanting to wipe Israel off the map, Trump’s failures on Iran should be reason enough to vote him out of office if Israel is your issue.

The other existential threat to Israel’s survival as a Jewish, democratic state is lack of progress toward a two-state solution. This threat is like climate change. Day to day, not much changes, and it’s easy to ignore, but it won’t be long before it is too late and reality is forever altered.

Palestinians who live in the West Bank do not have the same legal rights as Jews who live in the West Bank or as Jews and Palestinians who live in pre-1967 Israel. That’s understandable in the context of a temporary military occupation caused by Jordan’s attack on Israel. But Israel cannot remain Jewish and democratic and in permanent control of the West Bank indefinitely; it can only have any two of the three, which means that the only way to realize the classic Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish state is for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon land swaps and security arrangements satisfactory to both parties.

If anyone is clever enough to wriggle out of an unequivocal campaign promise to unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, it’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi, for all his faults, is no fool (unlike Trump). He understands the dangers of unilateral annexation. Thanks to the UAE, it appears that at least for now, unilateral annexation is tabled, although Bibi will continue to talk about it as long as it’s in his political interest. Note that while Biden and Harris are firmly opposed to conditioning aid to Israel, calls by a small minority of Democrats to condition aid based on unilateral annexation are also now off the table.

But tabling unilateral annexation is not progress; it’s a return to an untenable status quo. De facto annexation continues to push a two-state solution further away. Settlements are not the root cause of the conflict, but they impede the solution. If a two-state solution is not possible today because Israel has no partner for peace, all the more reason to preserve the possibility of peace by not establishing facts on the ground that will make a two-state solution politically and logistically more difficult tomorrow. It is important for Israel to preserve the potential for a solution not because this is Israel’s fault or because Israel has not done enough, or even more than enough relative to the Palestinians, but because Israel itself needs a two-state solution.

Trump has done nothing to facilitate a solution; his proposed peace plan is a facade that puts off the work that needs to be done. Time is not on Israel’s side–the longer a “temporary” occupation necessitated by Jordan’s attack on Israel in 1967 appears to be permanent, the less justification Israel has for denying Palestinians in the West Bank the same legal rights as Jews in the West Bank, and the less credibly Israel can claim to be both Jewish and democratic.

A key pillar of the U.S.-Israel relationship is shared values. To the extent Israel does not live up to those values, the relationship will deteriorate. Israel cannot be blamed if it proves by its actions that it remains committed to a two-state solution but cannot get there for lack of a peace partner. But if Israel’s actions call into question its commitment to a two-state solution, such as continued settlement expansion and tolerance of illegal outposts, then not only will Israel imperil its future, it will make advocacy for Israel more difficult in the U.S. by weakening a key pillar of the relationship. That’s why it is important to have a true friend in the White House, a friend who supports Israel and will encourage Israel to take steps for peace, a friend who supports Israel because he cares about Israel, not because he wants right-wing Evangelical votes.

But what about the agreement between the UAE and Israel? Although many questions remain unanswered, the agreement would formalize years of informal relations between the UAE and Israel, and while any progress toward normalization is positive, an agreement with a country 1,800 miles away, even to the (unknown) extent that the Trump administration played a constructive role, does not address Israel’s existential threats.

But what about Jerusalem? The emotional attachment Jews throughout the world have to Jerusalem is real. Did Trump’s moving the embassy to Jerusalem make it more real for you? Have you noticed countries lining up to get building permits for embassies in Jerusalem? Neither have I. Our embassy belongs in Jerusalem, but the move did not make Israel safer or more secure. Few cared where the embassy was until Republicans decided it would bolster the presidential candidacy of Sen. Robert Dole (R-KA). Now it’s Trump’s anti-Semitic dog-whistle to right-wing Evangelicals.

But what about the Golan Heights? Beginning to see a pattern? To the extent Trump’s moves are positive, they are long on symbolism and short on substance. Israel was under no pressure to return the Golan Heights. Anshel Pfeffer wrote that “Trump’s gesture is empty. Just as his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was. It won’t change the status of the Golan in international law and with the exception of a few client-states in Latin America, no other country is going to follow suit.” Spoiler Alert: None have.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are not only great on Israel, but have never used anti-Semitic, xenophobic, or racist rhetoric. Trump’s presidency is the antithesis of Jewish values. He regularly stokes hatred, fear, and violence. His mishandling of the COVID pandemic is why our kids, from pre-school to college, will lose the year they should have had and why over 180,000 Americans and counting have died. None of this had to happen.

Even if Israel is your main issue, even if you believe the Republican nonsense about Trump’s record on Israel, why would you vote for Trump given that Joe Biden’s record on Israel is longer and stronger than any general election candidate in history from either party?

The combination of disease, economic decline, and racial unrest under Trump is unprecedented. None of this had to happen, and to vote for four more years of this based on mistaken beliefs about Trump’s Israel policies would be tragic. Trump might claim to be good on Israel, but Biden has a decades-long record fighting for Israel and against anti-Semitism, as well as the other values most Jewish Americans cherish.

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About the Author
Steve Sheffey is active in the Chicago-area Jewish and pro-Israel political communities and is the Strategy and Policy Advisor for the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA). He writes and publishes the Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update. The views he expresses on this blog are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organizations he is or has been associated with.
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