The overwhelming liberal American Jewish community is a bastion of the Trump resistance movement. But, to the consternation of their neighbors, Jewish conservatives have generally stuck with President Donald Trump, even as his shaky first 100 days in office got even rockier, as the firing of FBI director James Comey (and reports that Trump asked him to shut down the investigation into then National Security Adviser Michael Flynn) and his disclosure of Israeli intelligence to the Russians plunged his administration into even darker controversies.
But as the Trump visit to Israel nears and his shift on a number of key issues concerning Israel becomes apparent, the question that must now be asked is: Will his Jewish supporters will finally jump ship?
The next week and all that follows from it, in terms of the course of the next round of Middle East talks that Trump is attempting to jumpstart, will do more to answer that question than anything his critics say.
Baffling as it may be to liberals who remain focused on Trump’s unfitness for the presidency, Jewish Republicans were largely satisfied with the administration’s first months. Part of the reason is that in America’s bifurcated political culture, Republicans are inclined to discount all negative coverage of Trump coming from the mainstream media. More importantly, he has governed in most respects like a conventional conservative with respect to the Supreme Court and other domestic issues, leading them to believe what he accomplished outweighed other concerns.
But for Republican Jews the belief that Trump represented a chance to reverse President Obama’s push for more “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel was paramount. And it is there, rather than the scandals driving impeachment talk on the Left that the tipping point for Jewish Republicans may be found.
Confidence in Trump’s Israel policy was always based more on hope than anything else. At times during the 2016 campaign Trump said he would be “neutral” between Israel and the Palestinians and that he longed to make the real estate deal of the century in the Middle East.
But Jewish Republicans preferred to believe that he meant what he said when he promised to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and that he would be Israel’s best friend. As surety for their faith, they cited the influence of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka.
That faith seemed to be justified when Trump named lawyer David Friedman, an ardent supporter of the settlement movement, to be U.S. ambassador to Israel. That choice and Trump’s outsider’s contempt for much of what passes for conventional wisdom about U.S. foreign policy, gave his Jewish backers confidence that his administration would be solidly aligned with the Netanyahu government on the Palestinians as well as Iran.
The Obama-style “daylight” in Trump’s policy on Israel is now too bright for Republican Jews to ignore. Trump, Netanyahu and their wives Sara and Melania walk into the White House. Feb. 15, 2017Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Yet that isn’t how things have worked out. Trump’s characteristic hubris, and desire to outshine all of his predecessors who failed in the Middle East, have put him at odds with Netanyahu. It’s also a function of his reliance on the more mainstream figures like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who appear to adhere to traditional U.S. stands on not recognizing Jerusalem (and specifically the Western Wall) as part of Israel, and an inclination to an even-handed position between Israel and the Palestinians.
His Jewish supporters may still choose to believe the empty assurance that Trump will move the embassy at some point during his first term. But what they are faced with now is a president who may turn out to be every bit as determined to force territorial concessions on Israel, as well as to accept Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ disingenuous assurances about incitement and terror, just as Obama did. Add to that Trump’s reportedly considering lifting some sanctions on Iran, and the confounding news about him sharing Israeli intelligence with Russia – and the result is a president that Jewish Republicans are hard-pressed to defend.
Given the shift in the Democratic Party to a far less supportive position on Israel in recent years, that doesn’t leave Jewish Republicans – including mega donors like Sheldon Adelson – with much of an alternative. But if Trump adheres to his evenhanded stance on Israel, there will be little incentive for his Jewish backers to back the president, as the rest of the political world denounces him over the Russia and Comey controversies.