Why the Trump era could be a political disaster for Israel

To Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defenders in the United States, the conclusion of President Obama’s tenure in the White House must seem like the end of a bad dream.

Just imagine: with President-elect Donald Trump occupying the Oval Office, there will be no more butting of heads between leaders in Washington and Jerusalem. No more official criticism of settlement construction in the West Bank (look for Trump Tower Ariel in 2019). No more pressure on Israel to make “painful concessions” in the name of peace (new blueprint for negotiations: “The Art of the Deal.”)

In a clear signal of sympathy to the Israeli right, Trump’s chosen envoy to the Jewish State is David Friedman, an Orthodox lawyer who likens liberal American Jews to Nazi-assisting kapos. Despite the risk of international backlash, the new administration is reportedly moving forward with plans to buck longstanding U.S. policy by relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Confronting scandal at home, Netanyahu won’t fly to Washington for Trump’s inauguration as some previously speculated, but he’s already cozying up to Trump and surely will be celebrating the departure of his term-limited nemesis from afar.

How quickly times change. Less than a year ago, Trump’s appearance at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) gala in Washington compelled the organization’s leadership to issue an unprecedented apology to its members. Now, as Trump prepares to take the reins of government, AIPAC and Netanyahu seem poised to do so much winning on the policy front that — to borrow a newly presidential phrase — they may get tired of winning. Seriously. Because if a maximalist pro-Israel agenda prevails with Trump in office, one of the biggest losers in the long run could be the pro-Israel movement itself — and the bipartisan support that sustains it.

The first and most glaring problem is that Trump’s unpopularity, which has no parallel in modern presidential history, makes him the worst possible face of unconditional US support for Israel. Trump is not merely unpopular, he is reviled, and large numbers of progressive and moderate voters — including Jews — will be loath to support virtually anything he does. If, for example, Trump chooses to pick a fight with the United Nations over its treatment of Israel, he almost certainly won’t generate the same level of enthusiasm that a generic Republican (think Marco Rubio) might have garnered for the same course of action. Even some who are inclined to agree could withhold their public support, allowing dissenting voices to grow louder by comparison.

Beyond their opposition to Trump, the Democratic Party’s rebuilding process poses another challenge. If Hillary Clinton had won, she would have been the unequivocal leader of the party for the next four or eight years. Regardless of how much her approach to Israel actually deviated from Obama’s — and the greatest shift may have been in tone — there is little question that Clinton would have been guided by the traditional constraints of the debate. She would have framed her criticism of Israeli policy largely in terms of Israel’s long-term interests. In the wake of her defeat, however, more progressive voices are starting to fill the void. And while the party’s fundamental commitment to Israel’s security is not currently in jeopardy, the next generation of Democrats are also likely to be more outwardly concerned with protecting the rights of Palestinians and pursuing peace for its own sake.

Finally, there is the question of how the Israeli government will respond to its sudden change in fortune. For the last eight years, Netanyahu, with the exception of a brief moment during his re-election campaign, has insisted that he supports Palestinian statehood in principle. That was always a dubious premise — and in the absence of American pressure, it’s conceivable that he could abandon it altogether. Trump’s victory has already emboldened leaders on Netanyahu’s right flank; Naftali Bennett, for example, proclaimed: “The era of the Palestinian state is over.” If Netanyahu walks back his support for the two-state solution or pursues more aggressive settlement policies, he risks further alienating the many Democrats who are already wary of his commitment to peace.

In short, the new administration presents the most devoted Israel supporters with something of a Catch-22. As improbable as it once seemed, Trump could be the one to finally give Netanyahu and his backers everything they ever wanted. But if he does, the mostly likely political consequence will be to accelerate the ongoing drift away from Israel among younger and more progressive Americans whose influence is on the rise. In other words: the nightmare may just be beginning.

About the Author
Matt Finkelstein is a speechwriter and a veteran of progressive politics. His writing has appeared in outlets including The Forward, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and Esquire. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania and is pursuing his M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Originally from the Baltimore area, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.
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