The scorecard on Trump and Israel: not there yet

The scorecard on Trump and Israel: not there yet

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump before the president departed Israel. 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump before the president departed Israel. 

Ever since October, when NJJN published an editorial supporting Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, the first presidential endorsement in the long history of the paper, our office has received a number of responses — emails, letters, phone calls, and online comments. Some praised us, and many criticized the decision. (Keep in mind that people tend to write letters to newspapers when they are upset, not when they’re in agreement; it’s just human nature.)

Here are some of the most common reasons our readers have given for why they disagreed with our position:

• Trump’s daughter Ivanka, converted to Judaism, her husband, Jared Kushner is an Orthodox Jew, and they are raising their children according to the Orthodox Jewish tradition.

• During the campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to move the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

• Trump has said that Jerusalem “is the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”

• Unlike Barack Obama, Trump gets along with Bibi Netanyahu.

• Trump will not honor Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

• Trump is not opposed to Israel building settlements in disputed territories.

• Trump would never threaten Israel’s security

The week after Trump’s victory, I wrote, “Despite my extreme reservations, I’m rooting for the Trump administration…I want what’s best for my family, my people, and my country…I hope I have reason to vote for Trump in 2020.” 

But even after the president’s trip to Israel, I’m not there yet. 

JTA Washington correspondent Ron Kampeas wrote recently: “Criticism of Trump from the Jewish right, while growing, is almost always accompanied by a caveat that his Israel policies are better than those of his predecessor, Barack Obama.” I’m finding it difficult to understand why that is so. 

Let’s put aside the revelations of the past couple weeks related to Russia, James Comey, Michael Flynn, and terms like obstruction of justice, and instead focus on Trump and Israel. Looking back at the list of reasons Jews should support Trump as provided by our readers, we start with Ivanka and Jared Kushner’s commitment to Judaism. That’s great, truly. But the jury’s out on whether their deep involvement in this administration will be a source of pride or embarrassment for the community.

Regarding the embassy, Trump repeatedly promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, asserting: “I’m not a person who breaks a promise.” But he not only held off on the move, he never explained why. 

To be clear, I think this is the right decision. In a perfect world, the United States should right an historical wrong and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the embassy there. But we don’t live in that utopia, and despite the symbolic importance, such a move would almost certainly result in an outbreak of Arab violence, and symbolism is not worth the loss of life. 

Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? It’s still up for debate. Last week, a senior official from the U.S. delegation arranging Trump’s visit to Israel said that Netanyahu would not be allowed to accompany the president to the Western Wall, reportedly telling his Israeli counterparts, “It’s not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.” Later, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster repeatedly declined to say whether the Trump administration accepted the Kotel as part of Israel. When the question was asked of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, he said the Western Wall is “clearly in Jerusalem” — thanks for that clarification, Sean — but acknowledged that its status “will be a topic that’s going to be discussed during the president’s trip.” 

There is every outward indication that the Trump-Bibi chemistry is infinitely better than the Obama-Bibi vibes, even though the president may soon be pressing the prime minister for compromises on the Palestinian front. So there’s that.

As for the Iran nuclear agreement, Trump has called it “the worst deal ever,” a sentiment in line with many Israelis, American Jews, and Netanyahu. But last week the president renewed the relief of sanctions against Iran in exchange for a promise to diminish its nuclear activities in accordance with the agreement. So much for tearing it up, surely a disappointment for Netanyahu. Feel free to criticize Obama for signing off on the deal — we have — but don’t forget that Trump had the power to pull the plug and declined.

What about the building of settlements in the West Bank, which Trump said last year should “keep going”? For the sake of brevity, let’s just quote from a recent Jerusalem Post article: “U.S. President Donald Trump will repeat his opposition to settlement growth in the West Bank during his first visit to the region next week — and expects the Israeli government to acknowledge that his position has been heard, a senior White House official said.”

Finally, there is the assumption of Trump’s commitment to the security of the Jewish state. I’m on the record as stating that Obama was no friend of the government in Jerusalem, and his decision to abstain on a one-sided UN Security Council resolution on settlements on his way out the door was childish, spiteful, and dangerous. But it may turn out that nothing he did in his eight years in office was as damaging to Israel as Trump’s casually un-classifying classified information to Russian officials about a terrorist plot by the Islamic state, apparently with Israel as his source.  

The information is believed to have compromised this Israeli spy operation, and endangered the individuals on the ground. What’s more, it’s certain that Russia would share the information with its allies Syria and Iran, Israel’s greatest enemies. Can you imagine the response from Israel supporters if Obama had committed such a grave blunder?

So I ask, do you stick with Trump because Nikki Haley has been a revelation at the UN? A definite plus. Is it that Trump’s the first sitting president to pray at the Western Wall? That he told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to stop paying the families of suicide bombers? I’ll admit that those count. 

But in the end, those are all just words, and Trump has shown time and again that just because he says something, it doesn’t mean he’ll turn it into action. On the contrary, you can be sure that the Russians will act on Trump’s words, and there’s no doubt the ramifications will be to Israel’s detriment.

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