Viewpoints, February 2017
Dr. Elliot Jager
Political commenter Dr. Elliot Jager assesses the impact of the Donald Trump presidency on the Jews of America
Israel Political Diplomacy Forum: Why are mainstream US Jewish groups alarmed by the new incumbent in the White House?
Dr. Elliot Jager: They sure are and with good reason. Jewish voters viewed candidate Donald Trump as a disquieting package of populism, crassness and misogyny. He appealed both to Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and white-conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. That’s why something like 71 percent preferred Hillary Clinton against 24 percent who backed Trump.
Since Election Day, he showed himself to be a sore-winner. He gave up any prospect of a political honeymoon by beginning his term as president in a spiteful campaign mode.
IPDF: Yet Israel’s government seems optimistic that relations with Washington will improve. Could this lead to a falling out between Jerusalem and the main center of world Jewry?
EJ: Israel speaks with many voices. Paradoxically, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been pragmatically restrained and cautiously hopeful. He wants to see a return to the formula enunciated by President George W. Bush in his April 14, 2004 memo to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That communiqué had recognized “new realities on the ground,” specifically strategic settlement blocs, and said it would be unrealistic for final status negotiations to result in a return to the armistice lines of 1949.
In contrast, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s January 29 tweet drawing a specious parallel between Israel’s West Bank and Gaza/Sinai security barriers and the proposed US-Mexico wall was ill-considered. He can’t possibly believe what he tweeted. So the only explanation is that the premier is trying to ingratiate himself with Trump. But Trump’s capacity for homage is bottomless, insatiable and unquenchable. There is no enough.
Netanyahu’s tweet was also a slap in the face of many in the US Jewish community. He should have stayed shtum. He has brazenly lied to American Jews about equal treatment for non-Orthodox streams. American Jews can’t be expected to understand the nuances of Israeli politics. The progressive streams are being disrespected and seeing Netanyahu align with Trump on immigration doesn’t make things better.
New US Vice President Mike Pence holds a ‘Jews for Trump’ sign while on the campaign trail in September; Credit: Courtesy photo.
IPDF: Have mainstream US Jewish leaders shown wisdom on Trump?
EJ: They have on occasion been injudicious. Some have been unnecessarily out-front or even gratuitously shrill. In a pattern that extends back decades and is part of the community’s twisted ethos, they’ve conflated the interests of Jewish civilization with the vast liberal-left political agenda.
IPDF: What most concerns you about Trump?
EJ: At the level of character, he is a bully and an extreme self-promoter. He deports himself like a petulant, hyperactive juvenile deprived of his Ritalin. On the policy level, we see a man grossly ill-prepared for the presidency. If his late January executive orders are any indication, this administration will lurch jerkily and incoherently from issue to issue. One step forward, one step back. It will be feeble on implementation. That also begs the question of whether he is capable of implementing a coherent pro-Israel line assuming he wanted to.
IPDF: But at least he is pro-Israel.
EJ: He is unpredictable. Best case scenario, as a seasoned bargainer, it’s reasonable to assume he will exact his pound of flesh. If the US Embassy is moved to Jerusalem, I doubt it will come cost-free. Worse case scenario, he could turn out be just as “pro-Israel” as Ronald Reagan –remembered for the Saudi AWACs deal (1981), an armed stand-off between US Marines and IDF tanks in Lebanon (1983), his Holocaust faux pas at Bitburg (1985) and granting the PLO diplomatic recognition (1988) five years before Oslo.
IPDF: But he has an Orthodox son-in-law as his top adviser.
EJ: Even allies can have conflicting interests. You’d have to hold Jared Kushner in contempt to think he’d put the interests of Israel ahead of America. And who can assess Kushner’s influence relative to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, senior White House strategist Steve Bannon and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn?
IPDF: Has Trump’s election exacerbated Jewish factionalism in America?
EJ: Yes. The Jewish people are comprised of many contending tribes. Under Barack Obama, J- Street, with some backing from George Soros was catapulted to disproportionate influence. It served the president’s desire to push Israel back, more-or-less, to the 1949 Armistice Lines. Under Trump, the Sheldon Adelson-funded ZOA can be expected to take over J-Street’s disproportionate influence at least initially. Some big name groups like ADL who vociferously oppose Trump may find themselves on the outside. Others like the AJCommittee can be expected to try for a more nuanced relationship. If Trump’s White House suffers from perpetual attention deficit disorder – as I suspect it will – access will anyway have little pay-off.
Elliot Jager, a political scientist by training, is a Jerusalem-based journalist. He is working on a general interest book about the Balfour Declaration. Twitter #JagerFile.