What a Pro-Israel Vote Actually Means in the 2020 Presidential Election
On the eve of the 2020 Presidential election, I wanted to share my views on the conventional wisdom that Trump has been the “best President for Israel.”
Spoiler alert. He wasn’t.
I’ll lay out my five arguments in italics below, but first I think it’s important to note that if you’re an American citizen voting in the United States in this election solely or primarily because you have a view on how an American president will behave towards Israel, I would encourage you to recuse yourself from voting in the US, give up your American citizenship, and make aliyah ASAP. You clearly do not have dual loyalty, but rather only have single loyalty — — to Israel. If you choose to live in the U.S., enjoy its benefits, and participate in its democracy, you should vote for how a President will affect the lives of his/her constituents, not Israel. Isn’t that the definition of America first ? Please don’t mess up the United States because you believe that an American president is going to better serve the interests of a foreign country. This is anti-democratic and extremely unfair to your fellow citizens.
In normal times, with two normal candidates, I can understand why policy towards Israel might be a deciding factor in a U.S. presidential election.
But these are not normal times.
Trump’s Presidency can best be categorized as a three-headed monster of mismanagement, deception and chaos. Trump turned the Covid-19 crisis into a national tragedy. His incompetence and lies cost human lives, and will cost many more if he gets re-elected. Many other, less public, but equally significant crises and opportunities were bungled, from the environment to domestic terrorism to health care to gun violence to press freedom to immigration.
How could our President separate hundreds of small children from their migrant parents ?
How could our President allow nearly 1 million American children to lose their health care in just 3.5 years ?
How could our President not recognize basic climate science and sell off our public lands in national monuments to private interests ?
How could our President not condemn the Saudi government for brutally murdering Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based journalist, on their soil ?
How could our President embolden white supremacists over and over again while cutting funding to combat domestic terrorism ?
This list goes on.
For con men like Trump, the Presidency is not a morality play, it is a self help scheme. There is no moral compass. The compass always points one way, to the Donald.
His own former chief of staff, General Kelly, called him the most “flawed human being” he’d ever come across.
I don’t doubt this statement.
Misinformation has been the currency of a morally bankrupt Presidency. According to those journalists assigned to the Trump Pinocchio beat, he lied and/or mislead nearly 50 times/day as President. This is a barrage of more than 20,000 lies since his inauguration. This must be some kind of deranged Guinness Record. He is the embodiment of a con man; the more you learn about him, the more you understand that lies aren’t just the things that come out of his mouth; everything about him is a total lie, from his business affairs, to his taxes, to his mistresses. This fraudulent nature would be fine if it were limited to the realm of reality TV, but as President, Donald Trump became a very real threat to everything I hold dear about this country.
Trump does not simply skew the evidence to match an absurd belief system. His goal is more sinister. It is to break down all trust of anyone in society. Don’t trust doctors, scientists, journalists, anyone, not even me, Donald Trump. Don’t even believe my words. This is rule #1 in the dictator’s playbook. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, in Egypt, in Cuba, in North Korea. To control the masses one must first erode the very notion of truth.
As a result of mismanagement and deception, we are left in chaos, domestically and internationally. Trump’s divisive and erratic rhetoric and policies has brought disorder to our society. It’s tearing the social fabric. But like usual, the disorder is not where Trump says it is. His re-election narrative is to make white voters believe that cities are in chaos, and soon the suburbs will be too. And that Trump alone will maintain law and order. Don’t believe the hype. Yes, large cities have crime problems. But after four years of Trump, America’s greatest challenges and threats are elsewhere. Our standing in the world is at an all time low. Our allies no longer recognize us. We are the Divided States of America. This, ultimately, will be the legacy of Donald Trump.
With all this context in mind, I want to write something to conservative minded voters who may be leaning towards voting for Trump because of Israel. Undoubtedly you’ve had to swallow lots of your principles to support Trump. Even though I’m not typically in the conservative camp on the majority of issues, I would love for a principled conservative party to emerge from the debris of this Republican Party whose ideals have been so shattered. A fact based and principled conservative party is good for our democracy.
So with this context in mind, we really shouldn’t be debating Trump’s policy’s towards Israel. There’s too much at stake in this election for America.
But in case you are voting for Trump because you think he is most likely to guarantee a secure, Jewish, and democratic state, in perpetuity in the Middle East, here are four reasons why you’re sorely mistaken.
Trump’s legitimization and emboldening of anti-semites in the United States has increased the threat to Jews in the United States, which decreases their ability to wield power effectively for the Jewish state.
I imagine that for many Jewish readers, Zionism and Israel are important because of our history of dealing with anti-semitism for more than two millennia. To vote for any leader who emboldens anti semites because he/she is also “pro-Israel” is hypocritical and self-defeating. Anti semitism is the entire reason for Israel’s existence. If anti-semitism ramps up in the US and around the world in an extreme way, that will increase the need for Israel as a sanctuary for Jews. But what happens if the anti-semites continue to gain power in the US? This is not a hypothetical question given Trump’s rhetoric and growing audience of bigots. The Department of Homeland Security has declared white supremacists the greatest terrorist threat to the United States, yet Trump de-funded a program combating it. Imagine if these trends continue and the vast majority of American Jews were no longer as safe in the U.S. Would Israel be more secure ? No. To phrase this argument more succinctly, one cannot embolden anti-semites AND be Pro- Israel. It just doesn’t hold water.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, has a flawless track record of speaking out against anti-semitism. He got into the race because of Charlottesville. Read his oped that he drafted on the two-year anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting. Obviously, we will need to hold him accountable like any politician, but at this point Biden is signaling that he will take anti semitism and domestic terrorism much more seriously than what we already know about Donald Trump.
Trump’s domestic culture wars and unilateral foreign policy weakened Israel’s greatest ally.
Domestically, Trump has been the tip of the spear on an information war against the American people for 4 years, stoking the culture wars to rally a largely uneducated White male voter base to vote against their own economic interests. This has destroyed belief in the very idea of truth, American democracy, and has divided the United States into two camps that are increasingly violent and polarized. Trump gutted the EPA, FDA and CDC to advance the interests of corporations. The administration’s incompetence turned the COVID-19 crisis into a national tragedy, with more deaths on a gross basis and per capita in U.S. than any other country in the world.
Internationally, by destroying just about all of our most important international partnerships and trade deals (Paris Climate Accord, TPP, WTO, WHO, Iran Nuclear Deal) without replacing them, questioning the value of NATO, he has isolated the United States from the majority of our allies and made us weaker. Trump claims that our biggest strategic threat is coming from China, yet he pulled us out of the TPP, a 12-country pact designed precisely to contain the economic and geopolitical threats coming from China. He pulled us out of the World Health Organization in the middle of a global pandemic, ceding power in dealing with global pandemics to China. This, and so many of Trump’s decisions, were illogical and erratic; the result of an instinct to blow it up first and then ask questions later. Trump has been cozying up to ruthless despots like Putin and Kim Jong Il while burning bridges with our natural democratic allies like Germany and Australia. The one virtue of Trump’s foreign policy is that it has avoided war in the short term, but it’s clear he has made the U.S. far weaker against current and future threats, pandemics, climate change, domestic terrorism, cyber attacks, and election interference.
Here are some data points about what the world thinks of America before a potential Trump second term. Even before collapsing further due to Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, confidence in him to “do the right thing” in international affairs stood at just 29 percent in a poll of 32 countries— down from 74 percent in former President Barack Obama’s final year in office. Global confidence in Trump is significantly lower than in German Chancellor Angela Merkel (46 percent), French President Emmanuel Macron (41 percent), and Russian President Vladimir Putin (33 percent) — and just one point higher than in Chinese leader Xi Jinping (28 percent). Germans are now equally divided on whether the United States (37 percent) or China (36 percent) is their closest partner, while just 28 percent of Britons trust the United States to act responsibly. Confidence in Trump is only 36 percent in Japan, 32 percent in the United Kingdom, 28 percent in Canada, 28 percent in Brazil, 20 percent in France, 13 percent in Germany, and a mere 8 percent in Mexico, while favorable views of the United States have fallen from 64 percent in 2016 to 53 percent in 2019.
If America is on its way to becoming a pariah among nations, where will that leave Israel?
As former Israeli PM Levi Eshkol said, “When America sneezes, Israel catches the flu.” Well, the US is pretty sick right now.
Trump (and the GOP) is doing the bidding of Christian evangelicals who are not aligned with Jews at the end of the day (or shall I say, End of Days)
In my 10 years of reporting from Israel and the Palestinian territories, one of the most surprising things I learned was just how influential Christian evangelicals from the United States are on Israeli politics. I reported for Time magazine on former Arkansas governor, Republican Presidential candidate, and evangelical minister Mike Huckabee (father of Trump’s former press spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders).
Hanging out on his bus for 3 days while touring Israel and the West Bank, I was struck by how gracious Mike Huckabee was as a host. So gracious in fact, that it took countless hours of beating around the bush before he finally revealed his true beliefs to me; that the overarching goal of his policies towards Israel is to lay the groundwork for Armageddon.
I also learned that there are many, many more Christian Zionists than Jewish Zionists in the United States. Those Christian Zionists are the evangelicals, arguably the most organized and largest faction of the Republican Party today. They wield enormous influence over the Republican politics on topics ranging from abortion to guns to Israel.
When Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he said, “That’s for the evangelicals. You know, it’s amazing with that — the evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people.”
This quote is evidence that Trump’s foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel does not represent the interests of American Jews who are a tiny, mainly liberal group that mainly doesn’t vote for him. In contrast, the Christian evangelicals deliver millions of votes to him across America, many in critical swing states. 8 out of 10 Christian evangelicals voted Republican in 2016.
This begs the question, are Christian evangelicals aligned with the Jewish dream of democratic, Jewish state, living peacefully in perpetuity in the land of Israel?
The answer is no.
In order to understand why, we must dive into evangelical theology.
Unlike Jews who pray for a lasting peace in Jerusalem, evangelical Christians do not envision a lasting peace between religions in the Middle East. On the contrary, they want only one religion in the world at the End of Days. What they pray for weekly in Church services across the United States and the world, is for World War 3. This war is known as the “End of Days” or Gog and Magog war, which they believe will usher in the second coming of Christ. This is not some wacky or loose vision held by a few. This is a basic, agreed upon tenet of evangelical Christianity theology. The prophecy is actually very precise about where this war will take place, the epicenter will be in or near the current location of Kibbutz Megiddo, Israel. The word “Armageddon” is based off this prophesied location. They believe the war will be worse than all previous wars combined.
According to the prophecy, there are the 3 stages required to get to Armageddon. The first stage is for the Jews to return to Israel (presumably as a result of anti-semitism abroad). This is the primary reason fundamentalist Christians are so supportive of Jews settling in the land of Israel. The second stage is for tensions to rise between Islamic countries (a country like Iran) and global, Christian-led superpowers (a country like the USA). The third stage is that the Jews who are living in Israel during this war will then either have the option of accepting Jesus Christ as their lord and savior — — or face eternal damnation. This theological vision embraced by evangelicals is not one of peace, but of holy war in which the Jews lose big time.
Their vision is not just some high in the sky fantasy — the Evangelicals put their dollars, energy, and votes in droves to make it happen. Yes, this theology actually has real ramifications on US politics, and notably, policy in the Middle East. Evangelicals, through their influence on AIPAC, arguably the most powerful lobby, are influencing American politicians to make decisions that are most likely to deliver Armageddon, rather than lasting peace in the Middle East.
So they support the idea of settling the West Bank, even though that threatens a potential two-state solution with the Palestinians. They also support the most radical Jewish fundamentalists and politicians like Bibi Netanyahu who placate them. They certainly supported blowing up the Iran deal.
In order to deliver Armageddon, a huge fault line must exist. Trump has deepened the fault line.
This is a nice segue to the topics security and nuclear weapons.
Obama and Biden did far more for Israel’s actual security than Donald Trump.
President Obama and VP Biden delivered a $38 billion military assistance package to Israel. This was the largest military aid package ever given to any foreign country in the history of the US. It was given to Israel in order to upgrade most of its fighter aircraft, improve its ground forces’ mobility and strengthen its missile defense systems.
Israel’s two main enemies today are Hamas and Hezbollah, which are both funded and armed by Iran. Given that the U.S. is funding and arming Israel, it is fair to say that the US and Iran are fighting one another through these proxies.
The Iran nuclear deal was such a landmark and historic act of diplomacy. It was President Obama and former Sec of State John Kerry who were able to orchestrate the multilateral peace deal to rein in a potential nuclear power and funder of terrorism worldwide. The U.S., Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia and Iran ALL signed on the deal and agreed to its terms. Known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, it lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for limiting their stockpile of low enriched uranium to 202.8 kilograms (447 pounds). It also gave the signatories inspection rights and visibility into Iran’s underground nuclear facilities.
It wasn’t a perfect deal, but was a very hard earned first step of a fragile peace, the beginning of trust building between enemies of 40 years. This path could have prevented nuclear war, stopped the proxy wars, unlocked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and ushered in a lasting peace in the region. It wasn’t all going to happen over night, but this was the path we were on.
Instead of trying to tighten or expand the agreement, Trump blew it up, and focused his attention on photo ops with the Dear Leader of North Korea. We don’t know exactly why Trump did it. We have yet to see evidence of a violation of the deal by Tehran. We only have the word of a Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who suggested that Iran was in violation without providing any actual proof. If this was an intelligence issue and he didn’t want to reveal exactly what he knew, he could have spoken generally about it. But instead we got nothing. Bibi was rightfully upset that Obama didn’t consult with them enough on a deal that didn’t do anything to curb the power of the Iranian proxies of Hamas and Hezbollah.
But here’s what a shrewder President would have done. He/she would have ignored Bibi and stayed in the deal, which was a monumental achievement of trust building, and then use the open line of communication to threaten further sanctions to pressure Iran to stop funding and arming Hamas and Hezbollah. We didn’t need to leave the deal and give an excuse for Iran to then violate it. We could instead have used sanctions as a lever to get the perfect deal over time.
And what happened as a result of the U.S. leaving? Iran is back at work building the bomb. The only difference now is that we no longer have visibility into it. We’re now back in the nightmarish tit-for-tat where sanctions are crippling Iran’s economy, but not enough to stop their enriching of uranium and funding of Hamas/Hezbolla. We can try and wait for their society to implode but this may not happen before a real nuclear showdown between the US and Iran. Or perhaps it will continue a nuclear dirty bomb deliver it to their allies Hezbollah ? These are scary possibilities that could have been dealt with at the negotiating table.
The fact remains that only Obama’s deal changed Iran’s behavior in a favorable way. Under Trump, Iran got back into the nuclear bomb making game. So which administration was better for Israel’s security, again?
Americans and Israelis should demand accountability for Trump and Netanyahu’s reckless endangerment of millions of people in the Middle East living under Iran’s potential nuclear umbrella.
So what has Donald Trump actually done for Middle East peace?
A whole lot of ribbon cutting and public relations.
Fake peace deals between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan. These were all business deals — not hard earned peace treaties. No blood has been shed between these nations. They had nothing to do with security and everything to do with Trump creating a mirage to show his evangelical base how “Pro-Israel” he is.
I don’t think they were necessarily bad for Israel, but the symbolic gestures of friendship are another example of Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner refusing to do the hard, perplexing work required to get big things done in the the Middle East. The fact is that they failed like all others before them to make a real peace deal between Israel and Palestine. The only difference is that they were the first administration in a long time that didn’t even try. They did cut a lot of symbolic things, which Trump loves as much as big, gilded towers with his name on them. Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognized Israel’s control of the Golan Heights, which were both major PR wins for Trump amongst conservative Jews and evangelicals — but will not change the facts on the ground. Peace will not ensue in the Middle East until the Gordian knot gets untied between Israel and Palestine.
Or a deal that ties in Tehran (which is what we had in the works with Obama). Tough knots just don’t get untangled from rubber stamps.
Real friends tell each other when they’re on the wrong path
My final argument is that Israel, under the leadership of Bibi Netanyahu, is on the wrong path. Putting aside Netanyahu’s corruption scandals, I would argue Bibi’s biggest flaw as a leader is that he lacks all the ingenuity, creativity, and vision that characterize the start up nation. Donald Trump, rather than pushing back on Bibi’s gradual Jewish take over of the West Bank, has effectively written him a blank check to do what he wishes. Nobody in Israel, or the world, really knows if Bibi has a long term strategy for peace.
Bibi’s ultimate legacy will be moving in more than 50,000 Jewish settlers into the West Bank (an 18% increase since he became P.M. in 2009) , while keeping Israel secure in the short term. In doing so, he is extinguishing any hope of a two state solution between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This leaves only four other possibilities for Israel:
- Israel will be in a perpetual state of war with the Palestinians and Iran.
2. Israel absorbs 3 million+ Palestinian refugees and makes them equal (no longer a Jewish state)
3. Israel absorbs 3 million+ Palestinian refugees and does not grant them equal rights (no longer a democratic state)
4. Israel convinces some other Arab country to re-settle the Palestinians (this will never happen)
For me, none of the above are good, or realistic outcomes. Here is some quick commentary on each.
#1 — While Israel does have military superiority over their enemies today, we have no idea what will happen in the future. Iran may get the bomb. The Saudi alliance will grow weaker over time as the world moves away from oil. The Palestinian population is growing far faster than the Israeli population. In this scenario, (which appears to be Bibi’s strategy) time is not on Israel’s side.
#2 — Palestinians will outnumber Israelis in the next 2 or 3 generations under current demographic growth rates.
#3- This is the “Apartheid” path that will ruin Israel’s moral standing in the world
#4 — This is the least possible scenario that underestimates the resolve of Palestinians to have their own state in their actual homeland. It also assumes some other country will take in millions of refugees out of goodwill. This is the scenario I have seen so many ignorant, right-wing Jews embrace. If there’s another thing I learned while reporting in the Palestinian territories, it’s that Palestinian nationalism is just as strong as Zionism. The genie is out of the bottle.. Neither side will give up until they get rights to their land.
Even though the two-state solution has not worked in the past, that doesn’t guarantee it won’t work in the future. It is still the least bad, and most possible outcome to ensure a Jewish, democratic state living in peace on the Jews ancestral homeland.
It will of course require a lot of work on the Palestinian side as well. The Palestinians are still stuck between a rock and a hard place. They have Hamas, the religious fundamentalists running Gaza, and the hopelessly corrupt Fatah leadership running the West Bank. They are bitter enemies with a brutal history of infighting. Yet, despite this, a Palestinian leader can emerge that can unify the Palestinians. A visionary Israeli and US leader would make it a top priority to identify and bolster such a leader on the Palestinian side. This is the only way we will ever achieve a real and lasting peace. For better or worse, Israeli and Palestinian rights and security will be forever intertwined.
Under Bibi’s leadership, it is the ideology of extremists like Yigal Amir (the Jewish terrorist who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) that is prevailing. That is the Jewish fundamentalist ideology that does not recognize the existence of the Palestinians and will never give one inch of land to the Palestinians. This is the ideology of perpetual war, or moving to a one state solution that will bring apartheid to the land of Israel. We need a U.S. president who can push back against Israeli Prime Ministers like Netanyahu who are moving Israel in this direction. In this way, there is a parallel to the United States. If the ideology of Jewish extremists like Amir win out, it will be as devastating as letting white supremacist ideology win out in the United States. Maybe this explains the bond of Bibi and Trump. In short order, if their leadership remain under the influence of extremists, both countries will be unrecognizable. And a peaceful Jewish, democratic state, in the land of Israel will be impossible.