Argument

Trump Is Too Pro-Netanyahu for His Own Base

The love affair between the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister might play well at this week’s AIPAC conference, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect Republican voters’ views.

Followers of Evangelical Pastor John Hagee chant slogans in support of Israel as they wave Israeli and U.S. flags during a rally in Jerusalem on April 7, 2008.
Followers of Evangelical Pastor John Hagee chant slogans in support of Israel as they wave Israeli and U.S. flags during a rally in Jerusalem on April 7, 2008. (GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s reflexive and uncritical backing of the Israeli government’s right-wing policies—such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and condoning growing Israeli settlements—has been breathtaking, not only in its one-sidedness but also in its blatant disregard for international law and norms, as witnessed last week in President Donald Trump’s tweet that “it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights”—a Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. The White House’s behavior raises an important question: Is Trump’s embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at least helping the president with his own base?

The latest extraordinary move regarding the Golan Heights will not only face widespread diplomatic opposition; it will play into the hands of those who want to make a mockery of U.S. democracy—a country capable of electing a visibly ignorant real estate tycoon, who brought in his unelected and stunningly inexperienced son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to guide his Middle East policy. Kushner, whose family has been friendly with Netanyahu since he was a teenager, has broken with long-held U.S. policy and United Nations resolutions all while the American public watches helplessly.

The problems Netanyahu is facing in Israel could come back to haunt Trump, too. The Israeli attorney general has recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges and the prime minister has been widely rebuked for brokering an alliance that includes a party called Jewish Power—made up of followers of Meir Kahane, the founder of the ultra-right-wing Kach movement—which is considered to be a terrorist group even in Israel. Nevertheless, Trump and Kushner stand by Netanyahu for what seem to be obvious political ends: helping a besieged Israeli prime minister get re-elected while scoring political points with the Republican base at home.

The conventional wisdom that Trump voters are extremely pro-Israel is based on some solid evidence, suggesting that Trump’s relationship with Netanyahu is a marriage made in heaven. But there is also evidence suggesting all is not well.

Let’s start with the heavenly. Just as there has been strong evidence that Democrats have moved away from wanting U.S. policy to take Israel’s side in favor of evenhandedness, a majority of Republicans say they want the United States to take Israel’s side outright, especially those who are evangelical Christians.

In addition, as University of Maryland polls have shown, Republicans love Netanyahu. In fact, during the 2015-2016 presidential primaries, his name was invoked in the Republican debates more than that of any other world leader, and, as a one poll my colleagues and I administered showed at the time, Netanyahu tied Ronald Reagan as the most admired leader among Republicans—even surpassing Reagan among evangelical Republicans—in an open-ended question. Even now, with Trump by far the most popular leader among Republicans, Netanyahu still comes in second.

Similarly, Trump is widely admired in Israel. Polls by the Pew Research Center have shown that while Trump is unpopular across the globe, he is strikingly popular in Israel. The University of Maryland’s own Israel poll last year showed Trump had high approval ratings among Israeli Jews; even secular Israelis held more favorable than unfavorable views of the U.S. president.

Based on these data, it’s seemingly a win-win situation, explaining why the besieged Israeli leader wants to be seen in Israel as Trump’s best friend and why Trump is pulling out all the stops—including, but not limited to, his stated support of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—and met the Israeli prime minister in Washington on Monday, just two weeks before the Israeli elections.

But there are other indicators that signal that even Republicans—including evangelical voters—may be weary of the extent to which Trump has embraced Netanyahu and the Israeli right. One indication is the gap between those who say they want Trump to take Israel’s side (57 percent) and those who think Trump is in fact leaning toward Israel (71 percent). This suggests a certain level of discomfort among segments of the Republican public.

Second, in contrast with 2015, when Republicans had no obvious leader and Netanyahu was one of the most recognizable personalities opposing President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal— including by criticizing Obama’s deal at a joint session of Congress—Trump is now by far the most popular leader among Republicans. But Trump’s base supports him because he is Donald Trump, not so much because he is Netanyahu’s friend.

Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the city as the capital of Israel makes this clear. Before the move, our University of Maryland poll showed that Republicans were divided on this issue: 49 percent supported the move, while 44 percent opposed it. But after Trump acted, support for the move among Republicans increased. This trend of taking a political stance based on political tribalism and identity politics—rather than on objective analysis of issues—is clear when it comes to attitudes toward other issues, such as Islam and Muslims. Americans now frequently adopt political positions solely based on Trump’s cues; those who embrace the president sometimes change their views in order to support his positions, and those who reject him tend to reflexively oppose his policies.

Third, in contrast to a majority of Democrats who say Israel has too much influence in U.S. politics, most Republicans say Israeli influence is at about the right level. At the same time, the number of Republicans who say Israel has too much influence is double the number of those who say it has too little influence—again suggesting some level of discomfort with Trump’s unequivocal support of Netanyahu.

Finally, there is a generational shift taking place across the United States, but it is most evident among a group that is a cornerstone of Republican support for Israel: evangelical Christians. Overall, Americans under the age of 35 want the United States to lean less toward Israel, in favor of more evenhandedness, in greater numbers than those over 35. But the largest shift seems to be taking place among evangelical Christians: While 45 percent of evangelicals/born-again Christians 35 or older want the U.S. government to lean toward Israel, only 21 percent of those under 35 do; and while only 1 percent of those evangelicals/born-again Christians 35 or older want Trump to lean toward the Palestinians, 18 percent of those under 35 do. Just as there is a generational shift underway among young evangelicals on other issues such as gay marriage, an even wider division between young and old evangelical voters is emerging on Israel. 

These signs suggest Trump’s base is not uniformly pleased with his embrace of Israel’s prime minister. Certainly, support among Republicans for Israel’s right-wing policies remains robust, with no real end in sight, despite signs of discomfort. But this may be a function of the fact that there are no obvious imminent costs to Trump’s love affair with Netanyahu and the reckless actions he takes to show that love. If and when visible costs emerge, expect a backlash, lasting beyond Trump. For now, the Republican Party’s priority of rallying behind Trump in a highly polarized America is papering over emerging differences on Israel among GOP voters, but these rifts will not remain invisible forever.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, director of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Twitter: @ShibleyTelhami

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