After I returned to Israel about four years ago, I found that American politics seemed stranger and stranger to me. I thought it would be interesting to discuss how it looks from here, and what the trends portend both for Americans and Israelis. I’m not offering an analysis of US politics and society – I haven’t been back since I left, and I have to depend on what people tell me and on the mainstream, alternative, and social media. Rather, I’m describing my perceptions as an Israeli Jew who is also a former American. So forgive me if my descriptions of American politics and society are inaccurate. They describe what I see and hear.
The 2016 pre-election period and the election itself seemed to be characterized by a degree of animosity and plain meanness that I wasn’t accustomed to, for all the years that I had lived in the US. And instead of calming down, the past two years have seen an increase, if anything, in the hostility between Right and Left, or rather between pro- and anti-Trump forces. The opposition has mobilized much of the media on its side, a legal web is being woven to entangle Trump, and if the Democrats obtain a majority in the House this November, it’s likely that an attempt will be made to impeach him (although it is almost unthinkable that the necessary 2/3 vote in the Senate necessary to convict and remove him from office could be obtained). Trump, on the other hand, can and does fight back with the considerable powers of the President.
“Moderate Republicans” are mostly extinct and “moderate Democrats” are an endangered species. Hyper-partisanship is the rule, with both sides apparently more concerned with hurting their enemies than solving problems. At the same time, the Democratic Party is not the Democratic Party of the past anymore, not even the party of the Clintons. The progressive wing, empowered by default after Hillary’s loss, seems to be steering the party. There appears to be a more aggressive, take no prisoners attitude toward the present administration. The overall electorate is changing too, with younger people and immigrants gaining the right to vote, and older voters dying off.
In the larger society, some things stand out. Expressions of Jew-hatred in America, both from the Left and the Right, are increasing. There is the phenomenon of Imams openly preaching against Jews, something which may have always existed but only recently hit the media. The same old neo-Nazis are out there, but it seems that they are less inhibited about public displays of antisemitism. Left-wing Jew-hatred, usually starting as “criticism of Israeli policy” has grown to include traditional themes of Jewish control of media and banks, conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds, and more. Attacks on Israel from the left have become more and more irrational, veering into blood libel territory, as illustrated by the recent statements of an Episcopal bishop. Democrats and younger people are showing less sympathy for Israel and more for the Palestinian Arabs. Support for Israel is becoming more and more a partisan issue.
Frustration with everyday concerns like health care is more and more seen as a political issue, with one side or the other being blamed, depending on the complainer’s political orientation. There seems to be real anger on both sides in connection with immigration policy. I have friends in both camps: the pro-Trump people say that he is doing a good job in a difficult situation, but that the Democratic opposition would wreck the country if they got into power. The anti-Trumpers think he is the Devil, corrupt, a racist, and a danger to democracy who must be removed at all cost. In general, it seems that the Left is more shrill and even fanatic, but that may just be because they are on the outside trying to get back in.
And now the part that will be controversial in America. How does President Trump look from an Israeli point of view? Leaving aside everything else, what effects have his policies had on Israel?
The answer, to the chagrin of many of my American friends, is this: no recent American president has done as much for the Jewish state as Donald Trump.
This was emphasized for most Israelis by the comparison with his predecessor, Barack Obama. Obama gave us a standard of comparison, starting from the days before his inauguration when his staff summoned Tzipi Livni to Washington to tell her that the IDF had better be out of Gaza by Inauguration Day (it was); through eight years of manufactured crises, slights, insults to our PM (who can forget an anonymous administration official calling him a “chickenshit”?); through pressure to refrain from construction in the territories (we did), to release murderous prisoners (we did), and to not bomb the Iranian nuclear project (we didn’t); through the use of Obama Administration consultants and State Department money to try to influence our election against Netanyahu; through a cutoff of supplies in wartime and a ban on flights to our international airport; through the funding of terrorism and the guarantee that Iran would ultimately have nuclear weapons by the Iran deal; and finally, to Obama’s lame duck period when America did not vote against an anti-Israel Security Council resolution for the first time since Jimmy Carter was President. And these are just a few things off the top of my head.
So when Donald Trump finally righted a historic wrong by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and when he proved that he meant it by moving the embassy to Jerusalem, as three previous US presidents had failed to do, Israelis felt a breath of fresh air from Washington. When he withdrew from the Iran deal and re-imposed sanctions, mitigating the damage already done by the previous administration’s cash payments to the terrorist regime, Israelis saw that he understood the danger emanating from the Iranian regime as Obama had not. When he cut funding for the Palestinian Authority when it refused to stop paying terrorists, they saw that he would stop giving the Palestinians a free pass. And when his administration announced that it would no longer accept the unique institution of Palestinian “refugees,” an arrangement created by the Arab states as a multigenerational weapon against Israel and – until Trump – acquiesced to in the West out of a combination of cowardice and anti-Israeli bias, they realized that for the first time in decades, a breakthrough against the stalemate in the region was possible.
And I for one am grateful, like many people here. But sometimes I think that our leadership is assuming that the new situation will continue forever. Trump may be President for the next 6 years, he may remain for only two more, or his political enemies may succeed in cutting his term even shorter, or entangling him in a legal struggle that will prevent him from doing more than defending himself for the remainder of his term. They are certainly trying hard enough.
Here is a scenario: the Democrats win control of the House in November. They immediately vote a bill of impeachment against Trump. Trump, threatened with an avalanche of charges and accusations, resigns. VP Mike Pence takes over; he continues Trump’s policies, but lacks Trump’s charisma (I can hear my liberal friends gagging, but what else is it?) and is defeated in the 2020 election by a progressive Democrat, like Elizabeth Warren or even Michelle Obama. It could happen.
If – when – the opposition regains power in America, there is likely to be a strong reaction against Trump’s policies in every arena. As always, nothing stands out as a target the way we do. A progressive president and administration could be as bad or worse for Israel as Obama was.
Therefore it is important for Israel to take advantage of the present climate to solve as many of its problems as possible. Would it be better to fight Hamas or Hezbollah (or both) with Trump or Michelle Obama in the White House? What about deporting the illegal migrants in South Tel Aviv? Building in strategic parts of the territories? Getting UNRWA out of Gaza? Annexing all or part of Judea and Samaria? For Israel, the implication is clear. It’s unfortunately rare that we have such wide-ranging support from an American administration. Let’s not let it go to waste.
For America, it’s not up to me to tell you what to do. You are still the greatest nation in the world. May you regain the unity and common purpose needed for your republic to survive for another few hundred years.