Trump Was Far From the Most Pro-Israel U.S. President Ever
In many ways, Trump’s actions weakened both Israel’s security and that of the Jewish community in the United States.
Before, during, and after his term in office, Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that he would be, and in fact was, the most pro-Israel U.S. president ever. In a recent post on his social media platform Truth Social, Trump boasted: “No President has done more for Israel than I have.” He then complained that “our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S.”—comments that raised age old antisemitic tropes about the dual loyalties of Jews—before ending with what seemed to be a threat: “U.S. Jews have to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel - Before it is too late!”
Before, during, and after his term in office, Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that he would be, and in fact was, the most pro-Israel U.S. president ever. In a recent post on his social media platform Truth Social, Trump boasted: “No President has done more for Israel than I have.” He then complained that “our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S.”—comments that raised age old antisemitic tropes about the dual loyalties of Jews—before ending with what seemed to be a threat: “U.S. Jews have to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel – Before it is too late!”
Blatant antisemitism aside, on the face of it, Trump’s pro-Israel gestures during his presidency might seem to merit his claim. But any serious examination makes clear that when it came to actions that strengthened Israeli security and well-being, Trump fell far short—and proved to be far more pro-Trump and pro-former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than he was pro-Israel.
In many ways, Trump’s actions actually weakened both Israel’s security and that of the Jewish community in the United States.
Rarely has a U.S. president showered Israel with as much attention, praise, and pro-Israel gestures as Trump. And despite recent reporting that revealed his deep frustrations with Netanyahu, the case has been made—primarily by himself and his supporters—that Trump was Israel’s most devoted champion among U.S. presidents. Israel is one of the few (and perhaps the only) countries in the world where large majorities prefer Trump over U.S. President Joe Biden when it comes to foreign policy.
And at first glance it’s easy to see why. Trump was the only modern U.S. president to visit Israel on his first trip abroad, the first U.S. president to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there, the first U.S. president to recognize the Golan Heights as sovereign Israeli territory, and the first sitting U.S. president to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Still, as important and resonant as these gestures may have been with U.S. and Israeli public opinion, especially the embassy move, they had little to do with improving Israeli security. In a piece for Foreign Policy, Shalom Lipner, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who worked for seven consecutive Israeli prime ministers, described them as largely rhetorical and symbolic. These were easy lifts for Trump, designed to burnish his credentials with evangelical Christians and to establish the Republican Party as Israel’s eternal friend.
Far more significant and beneficial to Israel were Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner’s efforts to cement Israel’s strategic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Building on an emerging coincidence of interests between Israel and Gulf Arab states, the Trump administration facilitated the signing of the Abraham Accords, a set of agreements that would open extraordinary chapters in Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and, perhaps in time, Saudi Arabia. And his administration’s killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani removed a major Iranian asset from the battlefield.
At the same time, as a result of acts of omission and commission, the Trump administration undermined Israel’s security. Trump’s 2018 decision to withdraw unilaterally from the admittedly flawed but still functional Iran nuclear agreement created a vacuum that has led to Iran ramping up its nuclear program. Today, it stands just weeks away from producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon should it choose to take that step.
There wasn’t much hope for serious progress on the Palestinian issue during the Trump years, but Trump’s efforts to marginalize the Palestinians, weaken an already dysfunctional Palestinian Authority, and enable Israeli settlement activity made a tough issue that much harder. Trump’s readiness to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria was viewed by many current and former Israeli military officials as a blow to Israel’s efforts to combat Iran—prompting Maj. Gen. Amiram Levin, the former head of the Israel Defense Forces Northern Command, to remark that “as long as Trump is in power, Israel has no one to rely on.”
And when Iran struck Saudi oil facilities in drone attacks in September 2019 and the Trump administration failed to respond, Maj. Gen. Amos Gilad, the former director of the Political-Military Affairs Bureau at Israel’s Defense Ministry, complained that Trump’s “no reaction policy when Iran attacks Saudi Arabian oil facilities or when Iran shoots down an American drone projects weakness. That is bad for Israel since American deterrence is Israeli deterrence as well.”
Nor when measured against the accomplishments of other U.S. presidents does Trump rank first when it comes to supporting Israel or caring deeply about its security.
Harry Truman was the first world leader to recognize the Jewish state, just 11 minutes after its creation was announced. Richard Nixon’s determinedly resupplied Israel with weapons during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and he dispatched Henry Kissinger to negotiate disengagement agreements with Egypt and Syria that would lay the groundwork for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic 1977 trip to Jerusalem and Egyptian-Israeli peace. And despite his tensions with then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter brokered an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that eliminated the prospects of a two-front war against Israel. All of these actions were far more consequential for Israeli security and well-being than anything Trump accomplished.
And in the care and commitment department, it’s hard not to see U.S. President Bill Clinton as well as Biden, whose support for Israel is deeply ingrained in their DNA, as sincerely devoted to the idea and reality of a Jewish state, in contrast to Trump, who tethered and subordinated U.S. policy on Israel to his personal vanity and political interests.
In 2018, Netanyahu visited the White House and praised Trump, placing him in the same pantheon as other historic benefactors of the Jewish people: Cyrus the Great, Lord Arthur Balfour, and Truman. Such flattery from Netanyahu was no surprise: Trump may not have been the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history, but he was certainly the most pro-Netanyahu, intervening to assist the prime minister in at least two of his reelection bids.
Those who celebrate Trump as Israel’s best friend in the White House also conveniently overlook two other aspects of Trump’s relationship with Israel and Jews that reflect poorly on the former president.
First, like so many other dimensions of Trump’s presidency, he subordinated his foreign policy to his personal politics. And the Israel issue was no exception. With help from Netanyahu, who long ago cast his lot with the Republican Party and its base, Trump damaged the bipartisanship on which the durability of the U.S.-Israel relationship depends. To secure his base, which includes white evangelical Christians and right-leaning Republicans, as well as to drive a political wedge within the American Jewish community, Trump has tried to make Republicans the go-to party for Israel while demonizing Democrats, cynically remarking in 2019 that “if you vote for a Democrat, you are very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people.”
He has tried to turn the U.S.-Israel relationship into a morality play, pitting “good” Republicans against “bad” Democrats. But the strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance depends on a political consensus between America’s two main parties that the broadest conception of the U.S. national interest means robust support for Israel. The relationship with Israel cannot and should not depend on the desires and ambitions of a single party or politician.
The other, even darker, dimension of Trump’s relationship with Israel and Jews involves his courting, enabling, and even supporting extremist forces that fuel antisemitism and anti-Israeli sentiments, including by perpetuating harmful antisemitic stereotypes himself, as he did in his most recent comments in which he suggested that somehow American Jews have a separate loyalty and stand apart from real Americans.
“We don’t need the former president, who curries favor with extremists and antisemites, to lecture us about the US-Israel relationship,” Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said in a statement on Twitter on Sunday. The Biden White House was even more blunt, accusing Trump of aligning “with extremist and antisemitic figures.”
From his comment after the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., that there were “very fine people, on both sides,” to his call to the far-right violent extremist group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” to his rallying right-wing extremist groups to march to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump has left a trail of tweets, statements, winks, and nods to white nationalist extremism and, equally important, he’s failed to consistently condemn these racist outpourings or the ideology driving them.
According to the ADL, 2021 witnessed the greatest increase in antisemitic incidents in the United States since the organization began tracking incidents in 1979. And though the ADL acknowledges it’s impossible to attribute this rise to any single source or ideology, a former president and elements within the Republican Party validating this poison only helps fuel this environment and raises the risk not just to Jews but to other minority groups as well.
In the end, Trump managed to shower Israel with a series of foreign policy favors that didn’t contribute much to Israel’s security, as well as few initiatives that did. He also did a fair bit of damage. It’s high time his supporters separate out his vainglorious gestures from the downsides of his actions. Trump wasn’t Cyrus the Great, Lord Balfour, or Harry Truman. Had the former president really cared as much about Israel as he did about himself, the Jewish state, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and American Jews would definitely have been better off for it.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2
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