Trump and the Israel Gambit A metapolitical wager
There have been many attempts to label Donald Trump as an anti-Semite by his Democratic opponents, who feel themselves entitled to sling the accusation around implicitly because of Jewish voting patterns that heavily favor them. This is the sort of “scarlet letter” that instantly destroys careers, campaigns and social standing without a presumption of innocence or due process. However, the new US President might arguably be one of the most Philo-Semitic Americans to have occupied the Oval Office. This is in the most Philo-Semitic nation of the most Philo-Semitic ethno-cultural space, the Anglo-Saxon world. Americans are so Philo-Semitic that the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Confederacy during the Civil War was Jewish, Judah P. Benjamin, right around the time Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister in Great Britain. 92 counties and townships are named after Jewish émigrés to the US, including Manassas city and county in Virginia, the site of a famous Civil War battle. Despite initial resistance, by the 1920s, Harvard was a quarter Jewish and the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, had been seated.
There was a joke in the days before Obama about Bill Clinton being the first Black President, because of certain elements of his life, such as his being brought up in a broken home without a father, his fondness for junk food and for Black music genres, like jazz. In this same vein, we can call Trump the first Jewish President. He grew up in Queens and made his fortune, just like his father, in the New York real estate business, in which Jews of all types are heavily represented. All of his married children are married to Jews, having themselves converted and being in the process of raising Jewish children. Ivanka Trump is specifically Jewish Orthodox. Moreover, he has staffed the upper echelons of his business empire with Jews. Despite his anti-establishment credentials, a number of influential Jewish bankers and other specialists (like chief ideologue, speech writer and White House policy leader Stephen Miller) are on his team and he has named an ardent Zionist, David Feldman (and his bankruptcy lawyer) as Ambassador to Israel, while also pledging to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, upholding past Congressional recognition of the city as the capital of Israel, but which had never been put in effect for political considerations. Moreover, he secured the very lucrative support of top Republican donor Sheldon Adelson (the casino tycoon) around the time of his nomination, specifically for his stance on Israel, while many Republican donors either looked around for rivals or crossed the aisle to the Democrats to preserve a more familiar and comfortable establishment.
Trump’s positions towards Israel seem clear, though details are still going to be hashed out during negotiations or by way of the omnipresent Israeli transnational lobby within both parties. However, aside from Trump’s apparently natural inclination towards valuing the American-Israeli alliance, there are very good political and metapolitical reasons for supportive policies. Whether or not they will eventually win out over other political considerations is another question. These are related to courting the minority vote in favor of his Trumpist civic nationalism or maintaining American influence in a world that is increasingly turning against Israel, in word if not deed, while noisily proclaiming their support of their Jewish communities as a talisman against the dreaded Anti-Semitism charge, which is laden with historical meaning.
While his electoral coalition attracted mostly Orthodox Jews and naturally conservative Soviet émigré Jews, with the rest upholding the liberal worldview embodied by Hillary Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu sang his praises and support of the Trump Wall TM, while the Israeli partisan media was quick to point out the advantages of a Trump Presidency with regards to the American stance on the settlements in the West Bank and now, more than ever, support within the UN. This had, in the past, been a foregone conclusion, however President Obama took the opportunity of the end of his overt political career and term to take a swipe at Israel, by not using the American veto to neutralize the umpteenth General Assembly condemnation of Israel, as was presented in the TMFI article “Obama’s last hurrahs”. This rankled Netanyahu immensely, but the fact that the normally third worldist sympathizer Mr. Obama had to wait until the end of his term to take such symbolic vengeance for various Israeli slights in the past speaks volume about the extent of Israeli lobbying strength in Washington and among the parties. Even the normally confrontational Mr. Trump was uncharacteristically subdued during his campaign speech at AIPAC, the American-Israeli Political Action Committee, the premier political force on what is sometimes called J Street.
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu sang his praises and support of the Trump Wall TM, while the Israeli partisan media was quick to point out the advantages of a Trump Presidency with regards to the American stance on the settlements in the West Bank and now, more than ever, support within the UN.
Netanyahu had been less obliging towards Trump during the campaign, even breaking off a proposed visit to Israel on account of the “tempest in a teapot” of the first Muslim ban idea. However, he had good reasons to tone down his instinctive approval of Trumpian rhetoric, even tough, contrary to the proliferation of Putin-Trump comparisons (and Hitler, Kim Jong Un and Pol Pot), the foreign leader that Trump most resembles in temperament, style and politics is Mr. Netanyahu himself. However, Israel learned a valuable lesson during the 2012 election, when overt support of Mitt Romney against Barack Obama not only aroused hostility against Israel, but was also a bad gambit, since Barack Obama eventually won and his attitude became resentful. By contrast, Mr. Trump had even fewer chances that Mitt Romney going into the race, who might have won had the “47%” comment not hurt him as much as the “basket of deplorables” comment hurt Hillary Clinton. This was not helped by continued overt Israeli conspiring with the Republican Party, which saw Netanyahu invited for the third time to address Congress in full session (an honor previously bestowed only on Winston Churchill) over the head of the White House, which is in charge of foreign policy, and specifically to attack White House policy towards negotiations with Iran.
So, President Trump will likely be one of the truest friends of Israel in the Oval Office, within certain limits. But what is in it for the great dealmaker, Mr. Trump?
Having engineered a substantial political shift within the American body politic, Donald Trump is faced with the unenviable task of transforming it into a permanent coalition that will continue to uphold his “Greatness Agenda” even after the politically talented septuagenarian has shuffled off the political stage. This means securing or creating a body of politicians who are pro-Trumpists, a donor class that sees Trumpism as something worth spending their campaign support on, Think Tanks to develop and formalize Trumpist thinking and a party nomenclature within the Republicans which is amenable to such positions. This is what Reagan did and the “Reagan mysteries cult” among the population AND the elites is going strong to this day, even though its usefulness has passed to a great extent.
One of the things that Trump might do is try to turn some of the wealthy and influential Jewish electorate to his side, like the Republican had previously started doing during the “Six Day War” period. At the time, Jewish Americans were also demographically significant in important coastal urban areas, especially New York. They had already become a significant proportion of cultural, entertainment, scientific and business elites. The Republicans wanted to court the Jewish electorate in order to reduce Democratic advantage, especially with regards to ideological development, cultural critiques, advantages in entertainment and, not least, funding. They did so by adopting the open Philo-Semitism of certain religious denominations, like Evangelists, but also by ramping up support for Israel, rather than the proxy support in its first years, given through Canada and France.
To enhance this courtship, over the years, the ascendant conservative wing of the Republicans started marginalizing its Philo-Arabic elements (which supported secular Arab nationalism) and outright purging the Israel-skeptics, as well as critics of Cold War politics and intransigent libertarians.
For instance, at the cost of interference with Kissinger’s détente policy towards the USSR, American lawmakers eventually passed the Jackson–Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, which made it impossible for the authorities to give “most favored nation” status and other economic incentives (credit for trade etc.) to countries which prevented emigration of citizens or imposed onerous costs to limit it. Senator Henry Jackson’s staffer at the time was the famous neoconservative of later years, Richard Perle, whose name is linked to the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and the planning for regime change beforehand under the moniker of “Project for a New American Century”. The amendment was addressed directly to the USSR, which had been trying to stem the emigration of its highest educated citizens, many of whom were Jewish. Under the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which was ultimately repealed by President Obama when he signed the Magnitsky Bill in 2012, many Russian Jews were able to move to the US as refugees without having to individually prove persecution. In addition to not having the burden of proof under the UN definition of “refugee”, these refugees had privileges over other immigrants, like access to welfare programs, health insurance, job placement services, English language classes, and the opportunity to apply for U.S. citizenship after only five years. A not insignificant part of today’s middle intellectual and media elites in the US is descended from these refugees. This was a form of preferential treatment by ethnicity and religion (though no test of actual adherence to the faith was required to claim refugee status) which was extended only to a few other groups, like Cubans and Vietnamese, bypassing the normal channels for migration. This is very interesting, since the US has moved from favoring certain groups and discriminating against the rest of the world to singling out some groups (by national origin, not by Muslim faith) for unfavorable treatment in the time of Trump, while leaving the rest as they are. While the latter is more inclusive, either way, there was never really any sort of equal treatment.
Muslims and other “People of Color”, who are an increasingly vocal presence in campus politics and organizations, identify more with the Palestinian cause than with the claims of shared interests
This gradual courtship cost the Republicans the traditional American prestige in the Middle East, where, as highlighted in Eugene Rogan’s book “The Arabs”, the US had once been seen as a neutral arbiter, as opposed to the rapacious European powers. Furthermore, to enhance this courtship, over the years, the ascendant conservative wing of the Republicans started marginalizing its Philo-Arabic elements (which supported secular Arab nationalism) and outright purging the Israel-skeptics, as well as critics of Cold War politics and intransigent libertarians. The “Godfather of Conservatism” and founder of “National Review”, William F. Buckley Jr., purged his editorial staff of skeptics like Joseph Sobran, M.E. Bradford and Samuel T. Francis. He later wrote “In search of Anti-Semitism”. He used his clout to expel from the movement people like proto-Trump presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, Forbes writer and Vdare founder Peter Brimelow and even Jewish libertarians like Ayn Rand, Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard and Ron Hamowy, as Rothbard himself chronicled in “The Betrayal of the American Right” in 2007. Also marginalized were organizations such as the intransigently anti-Communist “John Birch Society”, which has been painted in retrospect as anti-Semitic. This was part of a quest for respectability that netted the Republicans an important Jewish donor class and a Jewish intelligentsia that was more aligned with its Cold War politics than the prior libertarians. Led by Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb and, in our days, their son William Kristol, they became the “neo-conservatives” (initially a self-pejorative term for avowed leftists who favored military strength and intervention abroad). They made numerous converts among the Republican elites, over which they maintain significant influence to this day, until their internationalist ethos started being marginalized by Trump’s preference for non-interventionism and protection.
While neo-conservatism and its worldview attracted a large roster of Jewish intellectuals and donors, it is not ideologically attractive to the liberal majority of the Jewish electorate. Donald Trump can possibly count on further developments within the Democratic Party to try to win more than just the Republican holdouts. This is because the gradual evolution of the Democratic Party towards an umbrella group of minorities with weaponized identities against the majority has started to become counterproductive for the Jewish minority. The appeal of Palestinian advocacy has grown on liberal campuses, where Muslims and other “People of Color”, who are an increasingly vocal presence in campus politics and organizations, identify more with the Palestinian cause than with the claims of shared interests from what they view as stereotypically privileged Jewish students. Lip service is being paid to Jewish causes on campus, but the alliances are fraying around the edges because of immigrant dislike of Israel and, sometimes, their own cultural baggage. Academia itself is starting to become more critical of Israel, which was almost unheard of until recently. More worrisome is the continued growth of the BDS Movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) against Israel, which wants to punish it economically for its policies, which was fully on display during the disturbances in 2015 and 2016 at numerous American universities like Missouri, Princeton, Yale etc. Eventually, as the changing Democratic Party and its increasingly strident veneration of third world victimhood and its political causes becomes uncomfortable for the Jewish minority, some may decamp for the Republicans.
There are two main obstacles to this. The first is that the Mainstream Media and the most liberal Jewish elements have invested significant resources and political capital in demonizing Trump as not just anti-Semitic, but against everything that liberal internationalism stood for. Some of the criticism has gone from substantive to hysterical and hysterically amusing in some cases. Meanwhile, anti-Zionism has grown among the Jews themselves, whose rate of intermarriage and abandonment of the faith has alarmed community leaders, who publicly lament the diminution of their population, communities and traditions and argue for policies and programs reversing these trends. Secular Jews used to be most fervent Zionists, while ultra-religious Jews were against Israel. Now, there is a very active International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. Despite ritualistic professions of the impact of American prejudice, American Jews remain the largest Jewish population in the world, greater than Israel’s, and have become increasingly comfortable and secure over the decades, which has limited both interest in and (permanent) migration to Israel. On the Israel side, this is a very troubling development, as Benyamin Netanyahu himself had been fanning the fear of increased Anti-Semitism (mostly immigrant derived) for the Jewish communities in Europe, hoping that that they will move to Israel, which appropriately maintains the mentality of buttressing itself demographically against a still fecund internal minority and a hostile Arab and Muslim World. Not being able to access the over 6 million Jews in the US as possible high value immigrants for the Jewish State must be galling to Netanyahu’s political adherents.
Anti-Zionism has grown among the Jews themselves, whose rate of intermarriage and abandonment of the faith has alarmed community leaders, who publicly lament the diminution of their population, communities and traditions and argue for policies and programs reversing these trends.
It is interesting that Israel is living through the same disparities between liberal and conservative Jews that the US has, with liberal Israelis having the same vision for a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multiracial Israel that their counterparts abroad have. What makes Netanyahu’s essentially right wing and conservative political track record possible is the effect that a siege mentality has on a country and the preference it instills for ethnocentric politics, at least temporarily.
Metapolitical gains for Trump
Metapolitics refers to the values, knowledge, attitudes, common sense and wisdom which then inform politics down the line. Conservatism in the US has been a political failure beyond its core electorate because Republicans have been content with extracting concessions on trade, taxes and regulations and have abandoned, in turn, the educational system, especially University education, to the liberal “long march” through the institutions, giving them the opportunity to instill their values, ideals, worldviews and prejudices in the next generation of American leaders and prominent citizens. This is why the latest generation is in favor of big government, against the 1st and 2nd Amendments, and other Republican “sacred cows”, since the latter were content to fight battles for the short-term in detriment to the long-term “culture wars”.
Israel can play a very important role here, as the embodiment of many of Trump’s policies regarding restricted immigration, building effective barriers and borders and low tolerance and emotionality for immigrant lawbreakers.
For Trumpism to endure, it must create a metapolitical shift within the wider population, as well as his own supporters, some of whom support him rather than Trumpism or support him rather than Hillary. Israel can play a very important role here, as the embodiment of many of Trump’s policies regarding restricted immigration, building effective barriers and borders and low tolerance and emotionality for immigrant lawbreakers. To those who oppose Israel, this concept of transference through comparison might seem laughable, but they should not discount the extent of the support for Israel among Republicans and Trump voters. Many of them have projected natural but unfashionable feelings of nationalistic sentiment for their own country on the imperiled island of democracy in the Middle East, for which current political norms permit a very clear eyed view of its national interest. “America First” may have been alarming to many Americans, but no politician in the US has ever lost an election in recent decades by saying “I stand with Israel”. Trump has already used this device. He was berated that walls do not work, to which he replied that Israel’s does, as well as those of other countries. Israel vets visitors and, of course, immigrants. Israel protects its borders. Israel pursues its national interest. Israel does not place others above its own citizens. If someone were to admonish Trump that the newly preferred term for “illegal immigrant” is “undocumented citizen”, he might retort that Israel calls them “infiltrators”. This is especially effective against Republicans, of whom many still oppose Trump or support him tepidly, until the opportunity arrives to strike him down. From the perspective of Trump’s undeclared, but logical, mission to mainstream a form of American civic nationalism focused on the national interest, Israel is both “sword and shield” for his metapolitical warfare.
Derailing the match
Of course, Trump can be countered so that he does not gain as much as he could from his support of Israel or even to the extent that his support becomes a toxic political issue. First off, supporting Israel may become an even greater liability in international politics in the future, depending on how the individual attitude of middle powers evolve towards it or how Israel responds to perceived slights like the latest UN Resolution. Secondly, his political opponents may jump, during an economic downturn, on the large levels of military aid that the US gives to Israel, despite the current maximum being ordered by President Obama, especially if the aid is linked in the minds of the public with Palestinian suffering. Thirdly, the increasingly minority dominated Democratic Party may choose to use the nuclear option, by breaking the bipartisan consensus on commenting instances when Israel repaid its powerful benefactor with injury. This is an attempt to poison the relationship that would strike a chord with many Americans and may even put Trump in difficulty.
For instance, a Democratic Party that would sever its ties to Israel by banking on support from Jewish interests which are neutral to Israel, or even foregoing the support entirely, could bring up the USS Liberty incident. Israel bombed the USS Liberty in international waters in the Mediterranean, supposedly by accident, killing 34 crewmembers and injuring 171. It was a sensor ship monitoring the conflict with Egypt in 1967. The Israeli government paid 3 million dollars to the families of the victims and President Johnson did his best to minimize one of the worst losses the Navy has suffered since WW2, as well as preventing its entry into the public consciousness. He accepted the Israeli explanations of mistaken identification immediately, in contrast with the lingering doubts of Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and resolved to put the issue to rest.
The increasingly minority dominated Democratic Party may choose to use the nuclear option, by breaking the bipartisan consensus on commenting instances when Israel repaid its powerful benefactor with injury. This is an attempt to poison the relationship that would strike a chord with many Americans and may even put Trump in difficulty.
Another bone of contention could be the Jonathan Pollard espionage case. Pollard was an employee of US Naval Intelligence who extracted state secrets, details on intelligence contacts and mountains of vital data on American signals intelligence, detailing “sources and methods” and other means of conducting intelligence gathering during the Cold War. He then sold this information to Israel, before being caught and imprisoned for life in 1987. Pollard argued that the US was endangering an ally by withholding information, and Israelis downplayed the incident by arguing that no harm was done and it is only natural for Allies to keep tabs on each other, but the extent of the leak shocked the American security establishment. The aftermath also highlighted the extent to which the US-Israel relationship defies the common sense of the inherently unequal relationship between powerful patron and dependent. Noted journalist Seymour Hersh alleged that Israel had traded the information with the Soviet Union in exchange for allowing the waves of immigration from the USSR that Israel needed to alleviate its demographic weakness. The Israelis and other interest groups have consistently argued for Pollard’s release, something which American Presidents have been inclined to do under pressure but stopped when faced with a possible mutiny on the part of the intelligence community, as well as powerful bipartisan political opposition. Pollard was given Israeli citizenship in 1995 and was released on parole in 2015. The Obama Administration did not waive the customary 5 year waiting period before he may be allowed to emigrate to Israel. Tensions surrounded the terms of his release, which forbade the use of the Internet, as well as the abortive attempt in Israel to pass a law giving him a state home and a permanent stipend.
Should they wish to use it, this is ample material to try to make America fall out of love with Israel, and undermine one of Trump’s biggest selling points for an important part of the establishment. Whether they would go so far is unlikely, but the possibility is there, especially if new scandals of US injury at the hands of Israel emerge during the Trump Presidency.
Finally, we come to the heart of the matter. The pursuit of national interests in a complex world where interests overlap significantly can mean only one thing – Trump’s “America First” policy must eventually collide with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “Israel First” policy.