Jonathan S. Tobin
The last couple of weeks have not been kind to U.S. President Donald Trump. The guilty verdicts that took down his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and the plea deal that led his former lawyer/fixer and ardent defender Michael Cohen to declare that the president had taken part in a violation of campaign-finance laws has the anti-Trump resistance smelling blood.
Though Trump’s supporters dismiss all of this as more of an attempt to re-litigate the 2016 presidential election than a credible indictment of Trump’s legitimacy, it has created a mainstream media narrative in which the possibility of impeachment is now a matter of open debate, rather than confined to the margins of the political culture.
That leaves some friends of Israel worried.
It’s not just that Trump has been a better friend to the Jewish state than perhaps even his most ardent supporters imagined. Trump’s policies appear to have endeared him not only the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also to the bulk of the Israeli people. As both a recent American Jewish Committee poll and an Israel Democracy Institute Peace Index survey illustrate, his policies, as well as the contrast between former President Barack Obama, who was arguably the least popular American president among Israelis in recent memory, have made Israel the equivalent of a red state impervious to the swelling tide of anti-Trump sentiment in the United States.
That is something that further irritates the majority of American Jews who identify as liberal and Democrats. They were already displeased with the Israeli electorate’s repeated embrace of Netanyahu since many Americans wrongly blame the lack of progress towards peace on Israeli settlement policy—as opposed to ongoing Palestinian intransigence—and for concerns about religious pluralism.
If you assume that Trump is not merely doomed, but that any link to him will forever taint all those who have supported him or benefited from his presidency, his popularity in Israel presents a daunting prospect. To this way of thinking, Israel will not only lose a friend once Trump is sent packing, but many Americans will never forgive the Jewish state for having supported him.
This thesis is further backed up by a rising left-wing tide among Democrats that seems to have brought to prominence not only those deeply critical of Israel like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but also a new crop of young and popular radicals like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who may represent the future of the party.
In this scenario, an America that is on its way to repudiating both Trump and the Republican Party will turn on Israel in 2021. The next Democratic administration in Washington could prove to be even less friendly to Netanyahu (who, if not taken down by his legal problems, seems likely to win re-election the next time Israelis go to the polls) than that of Obama, leaving Israel thoroughly isolated.
Does this mean that Israelis should rethink their affection for Trump?
One of the first obligations of any Israeli government is to remember the importance of the alliance with the United States, and that it should transcend partisan alignments in either country. While we can debate which side was most at fault, the mutual antipathy between Obama and Netanyahu seemed to put that assumption at risk from 2009 to 2016. Now that Trump has seemed to fully embrace Netanyahu’s view of the conflict with the Palestinians, the bipartisan nature of the pro-Israel coalition is seemingly at risk, albeit from the other side of the spectrum.
Still, those advising the Israelis to start putting some distance between their government and Trump need to consider other factors.
The first is that despite Manafort, Cohen and the ongoing probe being led by Robert Mueller, Trump and the Republicans are far from finished. Given the still-solid support he has among the 46 percent of the country that voted for him in 2016, Trump’s re-election is not impossible. Moreover, barring some new evidence of skullduggery being unveiled by Mueller, the odds of impeachment remain slim, even if the Democrats win the House this fall. The odds of conviction and of Trump’s ouster from office are virtually zero. And even if Trump were to somehow be forced from office, Vice President Mike Pence, who may well be an even more fervent friend of Israel than his current boss, would replace him.
More importantly, Israelis should not be under the impression that their problem with the Democrats is confined to their affection for Trump.
Though many assume that the contrast between lockstep Republican support for Israel and a Democratic Party divided about their opinion of the Jewish state is a recent problem, polling shows that this trend has been in place since the 1990s. The Democrats’ drift towards identity politics, which has made them vulnerable to specious intersectional arguments that see the Palestinian war on Israel as analogous to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, started long before Trump came to Washington. If U.S. liberals are persuaded to view the Jewish state as repudiating their values—a false charge that has been bolstered by a largely disingenuous debate about the recent adoption of the nation-state bill—then even a full repudiation of Trump by Israelis wouldn’t fix the problem.
The problems between Israel and the Democrats not only run deeper than the current debate about Trump, but are more of a reflection of how the American left is following the pattern of European elites in terms of embracing false stereotypes and narratives about Israel. While trouble may lie ahead for the U.S.-Israel alliance, that potential peril won’t be averted by a precipitous and likely counter-productive antagonism towards a president who (manifest faults notwithstanding) is standing by the Jewish state in a manner that Israelis understandably appreciate—and still need.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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