Forget the fact that Jared Kushner may be the next “George Mitchell” of Middle East peace — an ill-conceived notion in itself, perhaps a nightmare scenario. I suggest seven reasons, some rooted in history, why the Trump presidency will be bad for Israel.
First, Donald Trump is utterly unpredictable. It is nothing less than delusional to think that we know what will be coming down the pike with respect to the Middle East — and especially for Israel. Recall: this is the same person who has called climate-change “a hoax.” Historically, we always knew what we were getting — even with Jimmy Carter.
Second, it has indeed been the case in recent years, with the Middle East an anarchic mess, that Israel — perhaps the only country in the region that has its head on straight — has had a relatively free hand in what it does. But even were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get carte-blanche, the consequences would ultimately be negative: a blank check would take away Bibi’s ability to say, “We can’t do ‘it’ (whatever the ‘it’ might be) because of Washington.” Netanyahu has been looking over his right shoulder for years; but, historically, he has been deeply concerned about the left as well. Whoever the prime minister might be, an important safety valve will be removed, and Israel’s politics, shaky at best, will become more unstable.
And carte-blanche itself may be elusive. The third dynamic derives from Trump’s “America First” trope. Conventional wisdom among the right is that “America First” is good for Israel. “America First” will be good for Israel — until it is not. Israelis need to be wary of the “America First” mantra: yes, it will be good for Israel — until Israel sells high-tech to China, or until Israel makes deals on excess natural gas.
Fourth, Donald Trump is, at bottom, a mercantilist; it’s the balance sheet that, very literally, will matter to him. Huge sums of money result from America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia; according to analyst Hussein Ibish, the Saudis have bought more than $36 billion in hardware from the U.S. in recent years. But with Israel the flow of hard cash is in the other direction: American money goes to Israel, and this will factor in our relationship with the administration. The bottom line is the literal bottom line: Trump will not be happy with the balance sheet. And if he’s not happy with the balance sheet, he won’t be happy with the relationship — and that’s bad for Israel.
Related, of course, is Trump’s statement from early in the campaign, which ought be recalled. He said, in effect, “I want to be neutral, even-handed.” English translation: “I’m a deal-maker, and I want to make the deal.” Israeli governments, going back to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, have abominated third-party meddling.
Then there’s the embassy question. Whatever the arguments for moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, it’s not worth the candle in terms of the real potential for violence and alienation. Again, the Trump unpredictability is at play in this one.
Finally, and most important, is the question of whether Israel remains in America’s strategic interest. “Strategic interest” has been the magic locution, the bedrock, of America’s policy toward the Jewish state since the Kennedy administration. Few will remember that, when statehood was declared in 1948, it was not clear to anyone that Ben-Gurion would align himself firmly with the West, bucking his own socialist majority in the Knesset. But he understood that Israel’s future was with the West — especially with America — and he courageously defied his socialist coalition partners. And President Kennedy, reversing an eight-year Eisenhower/Dulles mind-set, understood as well Israel’s value in the region (and internationally) and acted accordingly. From that point on, Israel was firmly positioned in America’s strategic interest.
My fear is that under a Trump presidency there will be more at risk than foreign aid. Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s new secretary of defense, has questioned Israel as crucial to American interests — indeed, he has said that Israel is a burden to the U.S. Statements such as this, from prospective high administration officials, take the question of “strategic interest” out of the realm of think tank “game-playing” and elevate it into a true policy concern. In a word, it’s Israelophobia.
The larger, geopolitical concern of a Trump presidency is, of course, where the U.S. is positioned internationally. An American administration that withdraws from the world is one that would allow a lot of bad actors free reign in the Middle East. That’s bad for Israel. Period.
To many American Jews, Israel remains the center of existence. And in recent years, loyalty to Israel has been perceived as a Republican, not a Democratic, phenomenon. You vote for candidates — generally Republican — who appear to be (and appearances are often deceptive) more closely aligned with the policies of the present government of Israel. But with the new presidency this automatic response no longer works — and it’s not the question of a Trump administration sanctioning a Bannon-flavored anti-Semitism in the political process. It’s the question of our relationship, both long-term and in the very short term, with our most steadfast ally.
Jerome Chanes, the author of four books on Jewish public affairs, history, and arts and letters, is senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches in the City University system.