Let’s do a little experiment. Now I realize that what people most remember about the recent Republican presidential debates is the vulgarity, the inanity, and the name-calling, but there have been a few moments of lucidity when history has been made, precedents have been set, and – yes – even reasons for optimism have been highlighted, although these may have been lost amid all the brouhaha.
So on to our experiment. Which candidate said the following?
“As president … there’s nothing that I would rather do to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors generally. And I think it serves no purpose to say that you have a good guy and a bad guy.
“Now, I may not be successful in doing it. It’s probably the toughest negotiation anywhere in the world of any kind. OK? But it doesn’t help if I start saying, “I am very pro-Israel, very pro, more than anybody on this stage.” But it doesn’t do any good to start demeaning the neighbors, because I would love to do something with regard to negotiating peace, finally, for Israel and for their neighbors.
“And I can’t do that as well – as a negotiator, I cannot do that as well if I’m taking … sides.”
Okay, I’m going to give you a few moments to contemplate the answer. I mean, here is a rare example of a Republican candidate speaking reasonably, rationally, in a statesman-like manner about one of the most controversial issues in American politics. Here is someone who is defying the bipartisan consensus on Israeli-American relations, which is that we must always give unstinting and unconditional support to the Jewish state. Here is an outright abrogation of the conditions of the so-called “special relationship,” that one-sided love affair that dictates Washington must kowtow to Tel Aviv and ignore the horrific conditions under which Palestinians have been condemned live.
Okay, you’ve had enough time. So what’s the answer? Who would dare to step on the third rail of American politics and defy the Israel lobby?
The answer has to be Donald Trump – doesn’t it? And indeed it is.
He said it in Houston. He said it in Detroit. And the two other main contenders attacked him for it, both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Of course they didn’t have any substantial or terribly convincing criticism – there can’t be any. How can one argue against evenhandedness? Cruz merely repeated his pledge to give Israel everything it wants, and more, while Rubio simply repeated the Israeli embassy’s talking points: Hamas, Hezbollah, terrorism, and of course “moral equivalence,” in short the usual nonsense – as if the Palestinians and their allies have no right to resist the occupation.
Yet Trump stood his ground. He’s repeated his position in at least two debates, and – wonder of wonders! – has suffered not at all for it at the ballot box. He is the frontrunner by a country mile, and the only flack he’s gotten over it has been from the usual suspects – the neoconservatives, who hated him anyway and are among his loudest detractors.
Bill Kristol’s so-called “Emergency Committee for Israel” ran an ad attacking him, but not, interestingly enough, over his support for evenhandedness: they didn’t want to go there. That’s because Trump has single-handedly changed the terms of the debate, with hardly anyone noticing: Israel is no longer the sacred cow of American politics, which no candidate dares lay a hand on for fear of his or her political future.
How did he do it? By simply and fearlessly telling the truth.
Of course some people did notice, the Israel lobby first of all. And in Israel itself, panic has set in. An interesting piece by Chemi Shalev, usually one of the more reasonable Zionists, notes that
“In their Super Tuesday speeches, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio tried to use an Israel hammer to bash Donald Trump. Cruz sneeringly lambasted him for saying he would remain “neutral” while Rubio trounced Trump for trying to stay “impartial”, as his audience booed accordingly. And Trump? Trump was racking up victories, amassing delegates and laughing all the way to the top of the Republican presidential field.
“In this way, the New York billionaire is decimating the conventional wisdom, one of many, that in 2016, total and unconditional support for Israel is a prerequisite for any aspiring GOP candidate wishing to run for president.”
Remember when the support of evangelical Christians was contingent on a candidate’s willingness to grovel before Benjamin Netanyahu? Poor Rand Paul, the alleged anti-interventionist/”isolationist,” had to travel all the way to Israel, cuddle up to the Israeli right-wing, and pointedly ignore the Palestinians, whom he didn’t even deign to visit – and where did it get him? Just amused disdain from the Jewish Republican Coalition and a series of televised ads from a dark money pro-Israel group attacking him for his trouble. Appeasement, it seems, doesn’t work when it comes to dealing with the Israel lobby, but one tactic does work: undermining them with a direct and honest assault.
As Shalev notes, southern evangelicals voted for Trump anyway, and in droves: they handed him victories in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, and elsewhere. As Shalev puts it:
“The notion that the Republican Party is a monolithic bastion of support that will withstand the test of time is evaporating. The belief that any Republican president who will follow Obama will be better for Israel is eroding with each passing day. Faced with the Trump phenomenon, Netanyahu’s Fortress GOP strategy is collapsing like a house of cards.”
The supposed invincibility of the Israel lobby has been a long time unraveling: the process began a couple of years ago with their first big defeat over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary. Senator Cruz, in particular, took center stage during this seminal battle, doing his imitation of Joe McCarthy in impugning Hagel’s integrity and accusing his supporters of being “Friends of Hamas.” It didn’t work, and the Obama administration grew bolder, taking the initiative in defying the Lobby and becoming more vocal in its criticism of Israeli settlement-building and other depredations aimed at the Palestinians.
But it took a Republican – it took Donald Trump – to deal the Israel lobby a death blow, breaking its stranglehold on the GOP and defying the interdict against evenhandedness in dealing with the occupation. The Israel lobby, for all its legendary wealth and influence, was always a paper tiger, and while it may have been nearly inevitable that this would happen it took someone with the requisite boldness to demonstrate this to the world.
And, as Shalev points out, there is no going back:
“Every time Cruz and Rubio try to hit Trump over the head with an Israel club and nothing happens, it is Israel’s weakness that is exposed. Every time Trump wins a party primary without challenge from his supporters, another nail is driven into the coffin of the unshakeable alliance between Israel and America’s deep right.”
That alliance is now being shaken to its very foundations. And the panic extends to the Democratic party, where Haim Saban, the billionaire whose great achievement has been the creation of “Mighty Morphin Rangers,” is denouncing Trump as “unreliable” when it comes to supporting Israel. Calling the Republican frontrunner “a clown,” and “dangerous,” he ranted in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 that Trump “dangerous for the world and since Israel is part of the world therefore he’s dangerous for Israel.” And especially dangerous, it seems, for those who consider Israel to be the moral equivalent of the world. Says Saban:
“It’s hard to know what he is thinking. One day he’ll give an interview to an Israeli newspaper and say ‘you’ve never had such a friend in the White House as you will when I become president.’ The next day they ask him about the Middle East and he says, ‘I’m neutral. I’m the U.N. I won’t involve myself. You just don’t know with him, every day it’s something else.”
Nothing less than complete and total support satisfies people like Saban: anything else is “dangerous for Israel.”
Saban, by the way, is one of Hillary Clinton’s longtime supporters: he has given her millions, and is the single biggest donor to the Democratic congressional campaign. He has a net worth of $3.6 billion.
What’s really significant about Trump’s stance is that, if, as President, he tries to make a deal in an evenhanded way, and it all falls through, Israel will be blamed, as Shalev rightly points out. That’s because, for domestic political reasons, the Israeli leadership cannot and will not make any significant concessions, which is why they view Trump’s evenhandedness with horror.
And that will show the world what Israel is really all about, deepening the rift between Washington and Tel Aviv, and perhaps even calling US financial support to the Jewish state into question. After all, if Trump is doesn’t want to pay for the defense of Japan, Korea, and our European allies, without getting much of anything in return, what’s to stop him from taking the same dim view of our yearly tribute of $3.5 billion to Israel – and getting bupkis for our generosity?
The dam is broken, the great breakthrough is upon us – and the great irony is that it came about because of a politician widely reviled by liberals and especially by Muslims, for his undisguised hostility to people of the Muslim faith. Who would’ve thought this man, of all men, would sound a reasonable note on the issue of US-Israeli relations? Yet history is full of such ironies, and I would advise my readers not to let the rather counterintuitive notion of a reasonable Donald Trump blind them to the unfolding political reality.
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.