Five years ago this Friday, President Obama threw Israel “under the bus.”
At least, that’s how Mitt Romney, who formally announced his presidential run just a few weeks later, described Obama’s call for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines. Romney’s indignation was shared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and virtually every member of the Republican Party. Many Democrats were upset, too — either because they objected to the mention of borders, feared the electoral ramifications, or both. The conventional wisdom was captured in a Newsday headline, which read, “Analysts: Israel remark may cost Obama.”
Republicans believed they could capitalize on the controversy, the latest in a string of Israel-related kerfuffles. In the fall of 2011, conservative pundits were fantasizing about the coming Jewish revolt against Obama. The last remaining hurdle was the Republican primaries. “But there is a catch to this dream scenario for the GOP,” wrote Jonathan S. Tobin in Commentary. “It is the fact that most American Jews fear evangelicals more than Hamas or Hezbollah. The one thing that could send the vast majority of Jews fleeing back to the Democrats, Israel notwithstanding, is the presence of a fire-breathing conservative Christian at the top of the GOP ticket.” Tobin’s basic position was, in today’s terms, #NeverPerry.
Despite such predictions, Obama went on to win nearly 70% of the Jewish vote in 2012 — a modest decline from the previous election, but a commanding majority nonetheless. Four years later, the notion that a significant number of American Jews would abandon the Democratic Party over Israel seems like ancient history. In Donald Trump, Republicans have chosen a candidate whose embrace of racial and religious intolerance is anathema to many Jewish voters. More significantly, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party raises fundamental questions about the future of “pro-Israel” politics as we know it.
While Trump has bragged that “nobody” is “more pro-Israel than I am,” his credentials are few and far between: He has a Jewish daughter, he once served as grand marshal of an Israel Day parade, and, as a matter of more obscure trivia, Netanyahu made an appearance at Trump’s most recent wedding. But on Middle East policy, like other issues, Trump has been all over the map. And aside from delivering a controversial speech to AIPAC in March, Trump has done little to court pro-Israel voters, including prominent Jewish conservatives like Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, who is publicly trying to recruit a third-party candidate into the presidential race.
At the same time, Trump has cultivated a committed following of white supremacists. And while these supporters are presumably drawn to Trump’s casual bigotry and anti-immigrant agenda — not his positions on Israel one way or the other — their enthusiasm has found expression not infrequently in anti-Semitic attacks on those who dare to scrutinize Trump at all. For instance, after profiling Trump’s wife Melania for GQ, the journalist Julia Ioffe received “a torrent of anti-Semitic, vitriolic and threatening messages.” The Daily Stormer, a pro-Trump website with a section devoted to the “Jewish Problem,” described her as a “Filthy Russian Kike.” The harassment and threats were so disturbing that Ioffe ultimately filed a police report.
Trump has declined to denounce such repugnant behavior (his delayed disavowal of former KKK grand wizard David Duke is the exception). But this has not prevented most of the Republican establishment from rallying behind him. Indeed, the fact is that Republicans — including RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — are coalescing around a candidate who is beloved by white supremacists and despised by prominent Jewish and pro-Israel conservatives. Even Sen. Marco Rubio, who repeatedly attacked Trump’s positions on Israel in the Republican primaries, has resigned himself to voting for Trump in November.
For the pro-Israel community, Trump’s nomination should be alarming — and not only because of his inconsistent views or hateful supporters. It should be alarming because it calls into question the reliability of Israel’s purported allies in the Republican Party. This is happening at a time when public spats between Netanyahu and Obama — including the prime minister’s bitterly politicized campaign against the Iran deal — have contributed to decreasing sympathy for Israel among liberals. Meanwhile, Democrats have increasingly embraced less traditional pro-Israel groups like J Street that are more focused on promoting peace between Israel and Palestinians than on defending Netanyahu’s government.
To put it mildly, a lot has changed since Obama’s much-maligned speech five years ago. Ultimately, Trump’s rise is just the latest evidence that, for better or worse, the traditional pro-Israel orthodoxy Republicans once fought to enforce is no longer sacred in either party. And while some may be reluctant to accept this reality, it’s becoming harder and harder to deny that the old talking points have simply gone stale. If the pro-Israel community wants to stay relevant, it’s time to adapt to new facts on the ground.
Matthew Finkelstein is the research director and a senior writer at West Wing Writers. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and son.