Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has been a grand marshal of New York’s Celebrate Israel parade and his daughter Ivanka is an observant Jew, but that hasn’t allayed deep concerns of Israeli analysts about how a candidate with a volatile personality and no foreign policy experience will perform as leader of the free world.
Is Trump an isolationist? Or will his belligerence embroil the U.S. in unnecessary military and diplomatic conflicts?
It’s a critical issue for Israel that goes beyond the simple question of where Trump would stand on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, say analysts. With Israel’s national security in large part derivative of the U.S.’s standing in the world, Trump’s lack of a clear foreign policy worldview is a cardinal issue for Israel.
“The biggest issue for Israel with Trump is of a charlatan being in charge — it’s a question of American leadership in the world,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University who recently authored a book on U.S.-Israeli relations.
“His instincts on foreign policy are, if America is threatened, you whack them. He doesn’t seem instinctively interested in America leading the world. … He is not an isolationist, but he doesn’t subscribe to what [former Secretary of State] Madeline Albright said about America being an indispensable power.”
Trump, say Rynhold and other analysts, seems like a leader who might continue what Israelis see as President Barack Obama’s several-year pullback from the Middle East — opening up a vacuum for more hostile powers like Russia. The political science professor pointed to Trump’s opposition to U.S. enforcement of no-fly zones in Syria to aid rebels in the civil war.
On the question of isolationism versus interventionism, Israelis would probably prefer Republican candidate Sen. Marco Rubio and Democrat frontrunner Hillary Clinton to Trump.
With praise for Ronald Reagan and links to the Republican establishment, Rubio is expected to continue a neoconservative approach to foreign policy that held sway under President George W. Bush.
Beyond Israelis’ generation-long emotional attachment to the Clinton family for former President Bill Clinton’s eulogy after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, the former secretary of state is also seen as more sympathetic to Israel than Obama and more interested in preserving the U.S. post-World War II role as leader of the free world.
“There is hope for a president who will bring more balance to the U.S. foreign policy in the international arena, and [Trump] doesn’t seem like the person to do it. How is the U.S. going to be world policeman in isolation?” said professor Eytan Gilboa, also an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University.
Many Israelis see in Trump a reality-show phenomenon who is unpredictable and shoots from the hip, said analysts.
“Trump comes off as someone who isn’t a serious person; he can’t serve as the president of a superpower and the leader of the free world,” says Gilboa.
The mainstream Israeli media has taken its cues from the criticism of Trump that crosses the political divide in the U.S. and dominates the American talk shows.
A political cartoon in the liberal Haaretz newspaper depicted Trump being inaugurated with Ku Klux Klan members in the front row. A talk-show host on state-run Israel radio remarked that she wouldn’t vote for him because of his remarks about women.
Amid all the criticism, Channel 2 television news recently broadcast a seven-minute profile of Trump’s daughter Ivanka — noting her adopted Hebrew name of Yael, and highlighting both her success in business and her close relationship with her father. The subtext of the report was the suggestion that the relationship might one day influence the decisions of a President Trump toward Israel.
But the real estate magnate’s anti-immigrant and bigoted remarks strike an even deeper chord of historic trauma for Israeli Jews.
“His rhetoric is scary for Jews wherever,” said Tal Schneider, an Israeli political analyst and columnist. “It doesn’t matter that right now it is directed at Muslims or Mexicans. Jewish people easily envision this kind of rhetoric being directed at them.”
As for clues about how a President Trump would conduct foreign policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is more concern because of Trump’s conflicting statements, said analysts.
He recently remarked that he would be “100 percent” with the Jewish state, but prior to that he said he would seek to be a neutral broker in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians and that Israel shared some of blame for the stymied peace process.
That inconsistency has Israeli right-wingers just as worried as doves, said Schnieder. She added that there’s fear among politicians that his abrasive and volatile style might be one day directed at the Israeli government.
“The Israeli right wing doesn’t want anyone to come and get a deal done — it prefers status quo,” she said. “Having a Republican candidate saying, ‘I am good at making deals,’ is something they don’t like to hear. … Rubio is a one-sided broker — that’s what they want to hear.”
Among the public, nervousness about the rise of Trump may even bridge the country’s political chasm between the hip cafes of Tel Aviv and the hilltops of the West Bank.
“Oy vey for the Western world. I don’t want to think about it. I think it would be the end of the world,” said Motti Chaimovitz, a cafe owner in Tel Aviv. “How can you take him seriously? I don’t see Donald Trump as the leader of the free world. … He’s a heartless capitalist, fascist and a racist,” he said. “And America is supposed to be a fortress of democracy?”
David Ha’ivri, a resident of the settlement of Kfar Tapuach, said Trump’s success is seen as the continuation of a malfunction in the U.S. political system that enabled the election of President Obama — who is seen by a broad swath of Israelis as unsympathetic to Israel.
“A lot of people think he looks like he’s someone from the circus,” Ha’ivri said. “It’s kind of disappointing. The Israelis look up to the Americans. I hope they succeed in getting their act together and developing more serious leadership. But we are learning that we have to be responsible for our own destiny.
“If, in the past, we thought we could lean on America and rely on America for direction,” Ha’ivri concluded, “we need to be self-reliant and take care of our own needs.”