Trump’s Troubling Role in the Israeli Election
By Halie Soifer
President Trump is endangering the future of U.S.-Israel ties by politicizing and personalizing the relationship between our two countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who in the coming weeks will form his governing coalition after his reelection, is the choice of the Israeli electorate. Despite President Trump’s astonishing recent reference to Netanyahu as the prime minister of all Jews, he is not, and we Jews are not a universal political monolith. Polling demonstrates that while 92 percent of American Jewish voters identify as “pro-Israel,” 59 percent are critical of policies of the current Israeli government. Just as one can be both an American patriot and detractor of Trump, there is no inherent contradiction between support for Israel and disagreement with Netanyahu’s politics. Trump has attempted to reframe this dynamic by politicizing and personalizing the U.S.-Israel relationship, and those who care about Israel on both sides of the aisle should reject it.
Trump put his thumb in the scale of Israel’s democracy in the lead-up to its election. He literally and figuratively embraced Netanyahu, including in the Oval Office. He recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights at a time when no one was questioning Israeli control of this strategically critical area. He designated the insidious Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization less than twenty-four hours before Israeli polls opened. Whether you agree with the policy or not, the timing and strategy is clear — these were political calculations on the part of Trump aimed to influence the Israeli election.
Trump’s interference in Israel’s democracy is un-American. Just as we reject foreign intervention in our election, the U.S. president should not play any role influencing the decision of the Israeli electorate. Results demonstrate that Trump’s maneuvering had an impact. Trump gave Netanyahu the slight edge he needed to secure a narrow right-wing victory over his more centrist opponents. One can only assume that Trump’s objective in doing so was driven by domestic politics given his ongoing attempts to use Israel as a political wedge issue to score points for himself and Republicans.
The U.S.-Israel relationship has endured more than seven decades in Republican and Democratic administrations. By identifying support for Israel so closely with support for Netanyahu, Trump risks turning the U.S.-Israel relationship into another partisan personality issue. Leaders of both the U.S. and Israel will come and go, and this relationship must continue to stand the test of time. As with so many issues, Trump threatens to undermine the long-term trajectory of the U.S.-Israel relationship by making it all about him.
While Trump’s policies may have helped Netanyahu in this election, it’s not helping Republicans. Despite Trump’s recent claims of Jews fleeing the Democratic Party, polling demonstrates the opposite. Trump’s presidency has contributed to a stunning loss of support for Republicans among Jewish voters, which plummeted from 33% in the 2014 midterms to 17% in the 2018 elections. This is because Trump’s policies on a wide range of domestic policy issues are antithetical to Jewish values and have contributed to an unprecedented rise in anti-Semitism.
According to a poll of Jewish voters conducted in October 2018, at least 70% of American Jews disapprove of Trump’s handling of anti-Semitism, which is not surprising given his dismal record. In 2017, he equated white supremacists marching in Charlottesville with those peacefully protesting them. In 2018, he self-identified as a “nationalist” — a term historically used in association with Nazism — and refused to denounce white nationalism. Nearly three-quarters of American Jews say Trump’s comments and policies were responsible for inspiring last year’s horrific massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. According to FBI statistics, there has been a 37 percent increase in hate crimes targeting Jews in the past two years, and Jews are the most frequently targeted religious group by a margin of nearly three-to-one.
Trump continues to deeply offend Jewish Americans with his policies and his words. When addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) last week, he implicitly accused Americans of dual loyalty to Israel. Only a few months earlier, Trump told Americans at the White House Hanukkah Party that he had great affection for “your country,” again implying that American Jews had an allegiance to a foreign country. At an RJC event in December 2015, Trump asserted that Jews would not support him because he didn’t want their money and Jews “want to control their politicians.” Republicans strongly denounced these anti-Semitic tropes when invoked earlier this year by Democratic congresswomen, but responded with a deafening silence when the president has said the very same things on more than one occasion.
President Trump’s Republican supporters have been willing to overlook his treatment of Jews as political pawns, stunning hypocrisy on anti-Semitism, and political exploitation of U.S. policy toward Israel. Those of us who value strong U.S.-Israel ties must resist Trump’s politicking. At stake is the risk of turning our historically bipartisan alliance into one based on political expediency and calculation. Americans must hold Trump responsible for the anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred he has sown, and resist his political manipulation of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Halie Soifer is Executive Director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America and a former senior national security advisor in the Senate and Obama administration.