Certain U.S. presidents were regarded as “good for the Jews” even when they were not considered good presidents. Case in point, the widespread fondness among Jews for Richard Nixon due to his airlifting much-needed weaponry to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. For some Jews, this fondness survived not only Nixon’s disgrace in the Watergate scandal, but the tape-recorded evidence that he was a paranoid anti-Semite.
Many Jews overlooked Donald Trump’s use of anti-Semitic tropes during his campaign and his flirtation with the white supremacist “alt-right,” expecting that the president-elect will be a staunch ally of Israel. The Republican Jewish Coalition hailed Trump’s win, and the Zionist Organization of America fêted chief Trump strategist and alleged anti-Semite Stephen Bannon. Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, recently pledged that his administration would take the unprecedented step of relocating Israel’s U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Yet Trump has been wildly unpredictable, and there are powerful reasons to doubt that his presidency will be “good for Israel.”
For starters, let’s qualify what “good for Israel” means. Amongst Israeli and Diaspora Jews, there has long been heated debate over whether Israel’s own government is good for Israel, whether it was Yitzhak Rabin’s government of the 1990s or the current administration of Benjamin Netanyahu. Consider the discord over the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran: Netanyahu and much of American Jewry loudly condemned it, while prominent figures from Israel’s security establishment welcomed the deal, accusing Netanyahu of fear-mongering.
Of course, beyond such debates, there are indications that Trump’s presidency could undermine Israel’s relationship with the United States altogether. The U.S.-Israel relationship is, ostensibly, rooted in shared Judeo-Christian and democratic values, and, especially since the events of 9/11, the notion of a common enemy in radical Islam. In the 2016 election, Trump won tremendous support with evangelical Christians – a pro-Israel bastion. His brazen anti-Muslim pronouncements won favour with many hardliners. Meanwhile, Trump’s threats to cancel the nuclear deal with Iran heartened Netanyahu and his allies.
But opposition to the Iran deal does not equal support for Israel, as evidenced by Trump’s recent appointment of former U.S. Marine Corps general James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. After serving as chief of the Pentagon’s Central Command from 2010-2013, where he commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East, Mattis was sidelined within Obama’s administration for opposing negotiations with Iran. Yet Mattis also declared that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are making Israel an “apartheid state,” echoing Israel’s fiercest left-wing critics. And in 2013, he complained that the U.S. “pays a price” for its support of Israel among “moderate” Arab states because “they can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
Mattis is bound to be influential in his new job, as Trump’s lack of foreign policy knowledge or experience will make him especially reliant on his cabinet. Indeed, Trump’s geopolitical ignorance is itself remarkable: In interviews, he has confused the Kurds with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, and claimed that Russia would not invade the Ukraine when in fact Russian troops were already there. Despite knowing little about the world, Trump has often boasted of his “good brain” and inborn decision-making gifts; just this week, he dismissed his need for the daily intelligence briefings traditionally given to U.S. presidents. There is no telling where this might lead.
Furthermore, for all his bluster, Trump is not the sort of U.S. foreign policy hawk that has historically supported Israel; he has blended threats to enemies overseas with isolationist rhetoric about retreating from America’s global alliances, horrifying fellow NATO member countries. He has courted Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a U.S. rival and an arms supplier to Iran and Syria, and condemned the CIA for its recent allegations that Russian cyber warfare helped get Trump elected. Trump has also, apparently, embraced the idea of slashing America’s defense budget. On Dec. 12, he posted to Twitter a condemnation of cost overruns on the F-35 warplane on the very same day Israel received its first two F-35s.
Israel has long taken for granted its special friendship with the United States. Israel’s security is, after all, underwritten by U.S. foreign military aid, of which it is the world’s largest recipient. Could President Trump change that? He has already done stranger things.
Daniel Douek teaches political science at Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal.