Trump and Israel: Best friends or frenemies?
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Editor's column

Trump and Israel: Best friends or frenemies?

For many, the president’s support for the Jewish state is unquestioned. Perhaps it should be

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

(Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)
(Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images)

Most Trump voters I know seem to fall under one of two categories: true believers or justifiers.

Here’s what I mean by that. If you’re a true believer you’d probably say that three million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary, or that Donald Trump’s words were taken out of context when he said there were “very fine people, on both sides,” about the violence in Charlottesville, Va. And if I remind you that Mexico was supposedly going to pay for the wall, you’ll close your eyes and yell, “Fake news!”

If you fall in that camp you might actually maintain your support of the president’s reelection even if, as he surmised, he were to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue. “He’s not a typical politician,” you’d explain.

Justifiers are different. If you’re a justifier you’ll acknowledge that, though you don’t like the man, you pitched your tent next to Trump’s because you approve of many of his policies. You want less regulation, lower taxes, more conservative judges, or a crackdown on illegal immigration.

But the vast majority of Jewish justifiers I’ve spoken to are in Trump’s corner because they consider him the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. Frankly, there’s a strong argument to be made that they’re right. For starters, of course, he moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognized the holy city as the capital, a declaration so many presidential candidates have promised but none, until Trump, had followed through on. At the time I disagreed with the decision, fearing it would spark riots in Jerusalem and put Jewish lives in danger. But though we’ve known for centuries that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, I admit to being emotional at hearing a U.S. president say it out loud.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu obviously gets along much better with Trump than he did with Barack Obama, and the president’s defenders are quick to point out that his daughter and son-in-law are Jewish, as are their children. Perhaps Trump is an unabashed Zionist who wants only the best for the Jewish homeland.

Yet even if that’s the case — and who am I to suggest otherwise? — it doesn’t mean he is good for Israel. And I’d contend that Israel is in a far more precarious position than it was before Trump took the oath of office.

Take his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear accord. Make no mistake: This was an awful agreement. Obama was either duplicitous in reassuring the Jewish community that he believed a bad deal was worse than no deal at all … and then going through with it, anyway, or he was so blinded by the desire to make peace with Iran, and history, that his judgment was severely compromised.

That said, Trump’s own cabinet members — former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis — argued against voiding the deal, both telling the president that Iran was actually in compliance. Despite their protests, Trump scrapped the agreement without offering an alternative, essentially daring the regime to lash out against its enemies in the Middle East. Iran did just that, bombing oil fields in Saudi Arabia, engaging in increasingly brazen provocations against Israel Defense Forces stationed in Lebanon and by the Syrian border, and, while they’re at it, escalating its nuclear program.

Something else: The most successful day in the history of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) was Aug. 15, 2019. On that date, Trump compelled Netanyahu to refuse entry to Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) upon their scheduled visit to Israel. Of course BDS is an evil, racist campaign against the Jewish state, and I’m continuously disgusted by the treachery and ignorance that has enabled it to emerge as a potent force. Israel has every right to bar Omar and Tlaib from stepping foot into our sanctified land, and for a moment, at least, it was gratifying to see Bibi turn them away.

But while Israel was able to puff its chest and exert a measure of comeuppance, the world didn’t see it that way. Instead, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle rebuked Israel for preventing two elected officials from visiting the country. Omar and Tlaib happily slipped into the role of victims, reinforcing the entrenched views of those who see Israel as a colonialist bully only too happy to traipse on the rights of the hapless Palestinians. The move gave more ammunition to those who push this false narrative in the hopes that they will likewise push the Jews into the Mediterranean. No doubt thousands of others googled BDS for the first time on that day, most of whom probably got their “information” from the first link that appears on such a search, the official BDS website.

Making matters worse, Trump is attempting to paint Omar and Tlaib as the new face of the Democratic Party, saying that Jews who support Democrats show “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty” toward Israel. In doing so, Trump is driving a wedge between staunch Israel supporters and Democrats, creating the impression that one cannot be both. Should enough people think that to be true, the Democratic Party, which has demonstrably drifted away from its once-stalwart defense of Israel in recent years, could decide to abandon the Jewish state once and for all, resulting in the erosion of U.S. support for Israel to unprecedented levels.

This week Trump announced his decision, denounced by virtually everyone outside his administration, to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, leaving the Kurds, America’s redoubtable allies, to face an invasion by the Turkish military. This being the reward for fighting alongside our soldiers to put down ISIS. The power vacuum this opens up in the region will likely be filled by Iran, a decidedly not-good outcome for Israel. Moreover, Israel has to wonder if it can trust someone who, on a whim, decided to cut and run and leave his allies to die.

Perhaps that’s not a plausible fear. After all, his support for Israel has been unwavering from the start. But since Trump came into office the always-combustible Middle East is even less stable than before, Israel is under increased threat from Iran, BDS is stronger than ever, and there’s a growing perception that being a Democrat and pro-Israel are mutually exclusive.

But hey, the American embassy is in Jerusalem.

Contact Gabe Kahn vie email: gkahn@njjewishnews.com, or Twitter: @sgabekahn.

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