No doubt many Jews who voted for Donald Trump did so because they believed he would be better for Israel, however one defines “better.” For most, that meant better than Barack Obama, who was committed to Israel’s security but who had major, and public, differences with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his policies on Mideast peace talks, the Palestinians, settlements, and especially the Iran nuclear deal.
A Hillary Clinton presidency was seen by her Jewish critics as a third Obama term, for a leader they deeply distrusted.
Trump, by contrast, after some initial stumbles, like advocating neutrality on Israel-Palestinian negotiations, appears to be fully in sync with Netanyahu and his approach. Trump has spoken of putting the pressure on the Palestinians, not accepting a two-state solution as a given, perhaps annexing the West Bank, tearing up the Iran agreement — which he described as the worst deal ever — and of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing its symbolic importance in Jewish history and its status as the true capital of Israel.
Such positions, so radically different from decades of more even-handed approaches emanating from the White House, seemed to supporters of Israel who are right of center to be almost too good to be true. And they may turn out to be right.
Talk to Israelis on either the left or the right about the prospects of a Trump administration and they express uncertainty and deep concern. Israel knows that American bipartisanship is crucial to its well-being. Israelis worry that just as Obama became a wedge issue for them, so might Trump. Even Netanyahu would not want to see the new president scrap the deal with Tehran entirely because it would lead to a return to Iran producing a nuclear bomb at an accelerated pace. Though we opposed the deal last year, in part because it allows Iran to continue its support of terrorism, the fact is that it’s working for now. The emphasis should be on strictly monitoring Iran’s adherence to the deal, and working toward extending its duration.
On settlements, Netanyahu is worried that he will be pressured from his right flank if Trump gives him free reign to build throughout the West Bank. The prime minister doesn’t want to precipitate another intifada, but a green light from the White House would cause him to lose his excuse that the U.S. is preventing West Bank expansion. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who wants Netanyahu’s job, is already pressing for more settlements and the end of the two-state solution. But even tough-talking Avigdor Lieberman, the defense minister, is advocating only for growth within settlement blocs where most of the Jews on the West Bank live.
And while every true Zionist would like to see Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital, one has to ask: at what price? The symbolism would be significant, but the move would further exacerbate relations with Europe and the rest of the world, and could set off another round of Palestinian violence.
In time, Israel could help leverage Trump’s apparent loyalty to the government in Jerusalem and his tough image and unpredictability, in initiating a new round of peace talks. “Let’s use the fear factor in our favor, and let Trump prove he’s the expert on the art of the deal,” an Israeli insider offered.
The lesson is not to take campaign rhetoric too seriously, and for now, not to rush things. The preferred stance is not to encourage ideological battles that could have disastrous results.