The news that Prime Minister Netanyahu will not be meeting in Washington next week with President Obama, with each blaming the other for the lack of contact, is another painful reminder of a vital relationship that went sour, and got much worse. One reason among many for that unfortunate reality was the perception in the White House that Netanyahu long ago threw in his lot with the Republicans, hosting Mitt Romney in Jerusalem when he was running for the presidency four years ago and, most notably, addressing Congress last March to oppose the nuclear arms deal in seeming defiance of Obama.
As the presidential election season finds Donald Trump the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, Netanyahu may be having second thoughts about his strategy to rely on the Republicans, widely perceived as more supportive of Netanyahu’s vision of Israel than the Democrats. It’s true that most of the Republican presidential candidates outdid each other in their praise and support for the prime minister and the Jewish state. Pledges of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem were common, as were full-throated statements about backing our democratic ally in the Mideast to the fullest.
Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio continue to speak out forcefully for Israel. But Donald Trump, the maverick from left (or right) field, clearly was not part of the Netanyahu equation, and the leading contender has stated that he would be “neutral” in seeking to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the peace table, prompting outcries from his two main rivals.
Trump has also spoken of his admiration for Israel and its prime minister, and his opposition to the Iran deal. But along with just about every other position the billionaire businessman has taken in his wild campaign, it is subject to additions, deletions and reversals.
“Faced with the Trump phenomenon, Netanyahu’s Fortress GOP strategy is collapsing like a house of cards,” wrote Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev, who also noted that even evangelical Christians, Israel’s most consistent champions, are lining up for Trump. “Every time Cruz and Rubio try to hit Trump over the head with an Israel club and nothing happens, it is Israel’s weakness that is exposed,” Shalev wrote. (See story on Israelis’ reaction to a possible Trump presidency on page 30.)
Keep in mind, though, that American Jews have a wide range of interests when they enter the voting booth. According to an AJC study from last August, only 7 percent of American Jews listed U.S.-Israel relations as their prime concern in determining a candidate. That was fifth on the list, with the economy being first by a wide margin (cited by 41 percent), followed by national security (12 percent), health care (12 percent), and income inequality (11 percent).
We should also note that close to 75 percent of American Jews tend to vote Democratic in national elections; Jewish Republicans, particularly with the influx of the Orthodox, place Israel higher as a key factor in casting their vote.
There is a long way to go from here to the Republican National Convention in August, and then on to the November general election. But the disturbing voting patterns so far in this oddest of election campaigns underscores the wisdom of the Israeli policy (sometimes abandoned, regretfully) to strive for bipartisan support in the U.S.