By Kent R. Kroeger (April 9, 2019)
President Donald Trump was in prime free-styling mode while speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition last week in Las Vegas:
“I stood with Prime Minister Netanyahu…Benjamin Netanyahu…How’s the race going by the way? How is it? Whose going to win the race? Tell me. I don’t know. Well, its gonna be close. I think its gonna be close. Two good people. Two good people. But I stood with your prime minister (emphasis mine) at the White House to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the GOLAN! (emphasis Trump’s) Heights. The Golan Heights is something I’ve been hearing about for a long time…(extended applause)…The Golan Heights. So, I was talking to Ambassador (David) Freidman and — not about this — they’ve been trying to get that approved, as you know, for 52 years ’cause they’ve wanted recognition from…” (Trump’s stream of consciousness continued on for another 30 minutes)
The speech quickly went viral, with Trump’s critics focusing on the anti-Semitic trope of dual loyalty implied by his saying “your prime minister.”
“Mr. President, words matter,” tweeted Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. “As with all elected officials, its critical for you to avoid language that leads people to believe Jews aren’t loyal Americans.”
Trump knew he was talking to Americans. After all, he was in Las Vegas. How could he not know? The only rational conclusion is that Trump thought his audience’s loyalties to Israel equaled, if not eclipsed, other loyalties.
Rep. Omar’s Controversial Statements on Israel
Even with a generous interpretation, Trump’s slur was patently more offensive than Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s suggestion in a February town hall meeting that, after she had criticized Israeli policies towards Palestinians, she had been pressured from both sides of the political spectrum to confirm her loyalty to Israel.
“I should not be expected to have allegiance/pledge support to a foreign country in order to serve my country in Congress,” responded Omar to criticisms of her town hall comments. “I have not said anything about the loyalty of others, but spoke about the loyalty expected of me.”
[Personally, I found Omar’s comment about U.S. support for Israel being all ‘about the Benjamins’ to be more offensive and interpretable as anti-Semitic.]
But for some, Omar’s clarification was insufficient.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said of Rep. Omar: “She is casting Jewish Americans as the other, suggesting a dual loyalty that calls our devotion to America into question.”
But Trump’s use of “your prime minister” is doing exactly that, directly. There is no nuance in Trump’s phrasing. He assumed his Las Vegas audience considered the political leader of another sovereign country to be their leader as well.
That is the definition of the dual loyalty slur. But was the deep-rooted anti-Semitism of Trump’s comment to the Republican Jewish Coalition ever acknowledged as such by the GOP and Israelis?
Of course not. After all, Trump has pretty much given Netanyahu everything he’s asked for, short of a war against Iran — and with two more years left in his term, that could still happen.
Despite Protestations from Party Elites, Israel is Now a Partisan Issue in U.S. Politics
Trump’s oratorical word salads have never been funny and, as president, the misinterpretations they invite only raise the possibility that he could do real damage to our national security and interests. Such solecisms in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has killed 9,876 Palestinians and 1,263 Israelis since 2000, over 2,300 being children, are particularly reckless.
Making the situation even more unpredictable is the Israeli policy under Netanyahu’s leadership to aggressively support and reinforce Trump’s leadership in the region.
By any objective measure, Netanyahu and Trump are besties. But to what end for the Israelis? So far, just short-term political gains, such as U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights and the U.S. Embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Those are purely symbolic outcomes from Israel’s perspective. Before Trump entered office, the U.S. Embassy was already, functionally, working out of Jerusalem and Israel’s control of the Golan Heights has been secure since 1974. Even Palestinian protestations over these U.S. policy moves have been muted and perfunctory.
But with the introduction of partisan politics into the U.S.-Israeli equation in the past 10 years, the Israeli alliance with the Republicans, and now Trump, may be effecting immeasurable damage to Israel’s (and U.S.) long-term interests.
Recent events on the 2020 presidential campaign trail illustrate this potential.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, not exactly a risk taker when it comes to stating concrete policy ideas, said during a campaign stop in Iowa recently that the U.S.-Israeli relationship, to be successful, “must transcend partisanship in the United States, and it must be able to transcend a prime minister who is racist, as he warns about Arabs coming to the polls, who wants to defy any prospect for peace as he threatens to annex the West Bank, and who has sided with a far-right, racist party in order to maintain his hold on power.”
For anyone following the U.S.-Israeli relationship over the years, O’Rourke’s statement was unprecedented for a mainstream politician with presidential hopes. American politicians don’t call Israeli prime ministers racist (not even strong Netanyahu critics such as former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders). But, in the post-Obama world, the U.S.-Israeli relationship has fundamentally changed — even as U.S. foreign policy towards Israel is as supportive as it has ever been.
Should Israel annex large sections of the West Bank, as Netanyahu has promised should he form the next government after the April elections, the Two-State Solution, which is already on life-support, will be OBE (Overtaken-By-Events). There is no viable Palestinian state on the West Bank where Israel controls 60 percent of the land (see Figure 1). Even as most U.S. foreign policy experts still cling to the Two-State-Solution, on the ground, it is as dead as Jussie Smollet’s career.
Figure 1: Israeli Settlements on the West Bank
Trump’s Implicit Anti-Semitism Has Consequences
When Trump implies that American Jews are as loyal to Israel as they are to the U.S., he is not only saying something that is demonstrably untrue, he is reinforcing one of anti-Semitism’s bedrock falsehoods.
Ironically, he is also doing measurable harm to Israel’s support among American Jews.
“A growing number of American Jews look at Israel and see a country that is occupying Palestinian territory and breaking up peaceful Palestinian protests using force,” writes journalist Zack Beauchamp, a Jewish American with familial connections to Israel. “They also see a Jewish state that only recognizes one socially conservative strand of Jewry, Orthodox Judaism, as legitimate — which manifests in things like preventing liberal American Jews from praying in mixed-gender groups at the Western Wall, the holiest prayer site in Judaism.”
Trump’s politicization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also impacted support for Israel across all Americans, and these opinions are dividing along party lines.
In a University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, conducted in September and October of 2018 among a nationally representative sample of 2,352 Americans, a majority of Republicans (57%) indicated they want U.S. policy to lean in favor of Israel over the Palestinians, while a substantial majority of Democrats (82%) want it to lean toward neither side, and 8 percent want it to lean toward the Palestinians.
As Trump said many times on the 2016 campaign trail, “I will do more for Israel than any president in history,” after two years, he believes he has made good on that promise. But he also done great harm, not just to Palestinians who saw a significant increase in fatalities by Israeli forces in 2018, but to Israel itself by overtly linking U.S. policy towards Israel to his political fortunes.
Given Trump’s demonstrable propensity for perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes, that is a political marriage the Israelis may well regret.
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