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Republicans and Israel After President Trump

A changing of the guard from the house of Bush to the house of Trump went down. Did anything change on the most implacable of issues?

It was a throwaway line in a candidacy that wasn’t supposed to happen. 

For one, Donald Trump was on speaking, if not chummy terms with Joe Scarborough. “I don’t want to get into it for a different reason, Joe, because if I do win, there has to be a certain amount of surprise, unpredictability,” the New York magnate told the MSNBC host in February 2016. “Let me be sort of a neutral guy, let’s see what – I’m going to give it a shot. It would be so great.”

The term “neutral guy” may seem rational, as doubtless it seemed to the future president when he said it. How else, really, should one approach a tragic and relentless situation in which the U.S. is not technically a party? 

But the wording ignored, so sagely as Trump often did, decades of Republican, if not American knife-fighting on the issue. As confirmed by the renewed bloodshed in Gaza and Jerusalem this spring (a putative ceasefire has been reached as of Friday morning), the trouble with running a nationalist campaign of civilizational pride in America is that Israel is such a worthy proxy. 

Real birth rates, a refusal to apologize about pursuing national interest, an anchoring in and embrace of its tradition, as The American Conservative founding editor Scott McConnell laid out in 2019 his “Two Cheers for Israel,” though he didn’t use this term, it’s hard to find a more important anti-”woke” club in the West than Israel. So much so that conservatives and historically, though this is changing, establishment Democrats have long found themselves kindred with these plucky nationalists on the other side of the Earth. 

And, really, who are you going to get a beer with? Benjamin Netanyahu, the impresario and quite arguably most significant prime minister since Israel’s founding, or Ismail Haniyeh, the steely head of Hamas’ political bureau? This wasn’t a contest, especially for a politician, Donald Trump, who pursued such an openly personalized foreign policy, and truly to some success— avoiding a near North Korean war he all but inherited, inking the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Jerusalem and the Sunni Arab autocracies few, if anyone, anticipated.

The rest, as they say, is history. 

Trump corrected for his sleight of hand in February 2016 by March 2016, giving a rip-roaring address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, leading with his favorite thesis: President Barack Obama was bad. “President Barack Obama is the worst thing to happen to Israel,” Trump said in a moment that courted controversy that he was, as is his successful signature, nonchalant about. 

The barb drew applause, which wasn’t supposed to happen.

“We say, unequivocally, that we do not countenance ad hominem attacks, and we take great offense to those that are levied against the president of the United States of America from our stage,” the group’s spox said, under pressure, in a statement following the Republican’s remark. “With President Obama in his final year — yay!” Trump had said, to audience delight. It’s a memory-hold episode for a reason.     

It was a long time coming. 

Netanyahu’s address to the GOP-controlled U.S. Congress in the thoroughly pre-Trump spring of 2015 was a break from precedent. It was a risky gambit from Israel’s perspective, the result of which the plausibly apocryphal Chinese Communist aphorism could be applied: it’s too soon to tell. 

Netanyahu, rather hilariously, maintained at the time that the speech given principally to domestic antagonists castigating the sitting president’s signature foreign policy, the Iran deal, was “not intended to disrespect” Barack Obama. But it cemented the Israeli tack to the American right. 

Or as Mark Perry, the former counselor to Yasser Arafat, the lightning rod, legendary Palestinian leader, has argued: in recent years, Israel has become more controversial among American Jews, who lean Democratic, more popular with U.S. Evangelicals, who are generally stalwart Republicans, and cumulatively more bold in its actions in Palestine– all at the same time.

The result is where we are. Jerusalem and Gaza City on Friday said they have laid down their arms, after the most intense fighting in seven years, and the first since the U.S., led by Trump, recognized the capital, arranged the Abraham Accords and terminated the Iran deal (the Palestinians are viewed by some as essentially Iranian proxies). But Netanyahu pledged “a new level of force” if Palestinians resumed fire, which, if history is any indication.  

The bloodshed and ensuing controversy saw the hallmarks of the new arrangement. 

Younger, lefty criticism of the Jewish state is far more mainstream in the Democratic Party than it was a generation ago, as personified by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. Republican establishment support of Israel is more full-throated than ever, perhaps buttressed by civilizational anxiety at home. And at the same time, younger voices on the right are clearly more skeptical of unflinching support for the Israelis, but are for now locked out of true power. 

The result is conservative criticism of a relatively popular, if placeholder, president, one who once self-identified as a Zionist. And it’s true, the once pretty tight relationship between the former vice president and Prime Minister Netanyahu has become truly frosty, the result of intra-party Democratic intrigue and the Israeli leader’s partisan leanings over the last half-decade, an instinct that accrued his country quick gains but leaves him more out in the cold if he’s on the other side of the roulette in Washington, as he is now.

But Israel, should the crisis resume, is seen by many senior Republicans as a soft underbelly of a strange president. In short, gas lines and a true fumbling of a Middle East crisis conjure images of latter-day Jimmy Carter. Usefully for the right, comparisons are even drawn between the Israeli resolve to dispatch with Hamas, the designated terrorist group which rules Gaza, and the U.S. failure to reject the clear excesses of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s also a matter Republican leaders care deeply about, right down to the details, such as which figures in the previous administration got the right maps of the world, updated with the label of Jerusalem as the capital.      

Perhaps the only thing that is clear in 2021 is that nobody is a “neutral guy.”