Nearly every American president and nearly every American politician has viewed Israel through two different frames. The first is a policy frame; from the perspective of U.S. interests and values, to what extent and for what reasons should the U.S. support Israel and to what extent do American and Israeli priorities converge or diverge? The second is a domestic political frame; what political benefits or costs accrue from being a staunch supporter of Israel, and what political benefits or costs accrue from criticizing Israel? For the most part, both of these calculations have historically pointed to strong support for Israel across the Republican and Democratic parties, though both of these calculations may be subtly changing in ways large and small. What has remained constant, however, is that nearly all elected officials tend to take both of these things into account. I say nearly all because the glaring exception is President Trump, who is unique in his complete and total disinterest in Israel from a policy perspective but his overwhelming interest in Israel as a vehicle through which to fulfill his political goals.
It is striking to observe the depth of how Trump speaks and thinks about Israel in political terms. The most obvious example of this is also Trump’s most high profile decision related to Israel, namely his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his move of the American embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Proponents of recognizing Jerusalem and moving the embassy cited a host of policy benefits, from supporting Israel as an ally to sending a message to Israel’s opponents about its viability and legitimacy to discrediting terrorism and violence as a successful tactic. But in announcing the policy change on December 6, 2017, Trump started by noting that Congress had voted to relocate the embassy and saying, “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.” This came before Trump mentioned any of the policy reasons for doing so, and put a particular political spin on the entire announcement. It left the impression that Trump was more interested in the fact that this was a fulfillment of a campaign pledge than in any of the substantive reasons for doing so.
This framing did not end there. During campaign rallies ahead of the recent midterm elections, it was widely reported that Trump emphasized and even led off with his embassy relocation decision, speaking about it in a way that was divorced from policy considerations but as an example of a campaign promise he fulfilled, or as an example of his leadership style that he claimed was leading the U.S. to be respected again. For all of the reasons to move the embassy, Trump seems to view it as nothing more than the equivalent of making a promise for political purposes – a chicken in every pot, or ”read my lips, no new taxes” – and then successfully delivering. While policy decisions are nearly always influenced by political considerations, it is strange to see the policy considerations stripped away completely.
Trump’s rhetoric around brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace has followed the same pattern. While getting the two sides together for “the ultimate deal” has been as close to a foreign policy obsession of his that exists on the campaign trail and in the White House, he has not once communicated a tangible policy detail that he wants to see out of a deal. He has famously expressed no preference for one state or two states, has not evinced strong views on whether settlements are an obstacle or an irrelevance, and has never laid out his argument for why a deal even matters. He speaks about it as a personal win for someone who craves being seen as a master dealmaker, or as something that has eluded his predecessors and thus would be a huge accomplishment. Policy considerations are bizarrely absent.
While viewing Israel as a purely political project has tended to benefit Israel because Trump’s base is generally very hawkish on Israel issues and supportive of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policy outlook and priorities, it can also boomerang on Israel. When a pro-Israel policy conflicts with Trump’s personal political interests, there is no question of which way he will go, irrespective of the policy implications. For all of the gratitude and praise that Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have heaped upon Trump for his pulling out of the Iran deal, his campaign promise to get the U.S. out of military entanglements in the Middle East has meant less support for Israel in its efforts to contain Iran’s ambitions in Syria. Trump’s announced withdrawal of American troops from Syria was, like the embassy move, clearly an effort to fulfill a campaign pledge, and Trump was not going to allow policy consideration to intrude, whether it was American interests in not leaving Syria to the Russians and Iranians or American interests in not abandoning Israel as a critical military ally. When asked about Israeli concerns, Trump’s response was to brush them aside. “We’re going to take good care of Israel. Israel is going to be good. But we give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And we give them, frankly, a lot more money than that, if you look at the books — a lot more money than that. And they’ve been doing a very good job for themselves.” There is a perfectly reasonable debate to be had over whether the U.S. should be in Syria and to what extent U.S. and Israeli interests there converge, but it is apparent from Trump’s public comments that he is looking at the political angle above all else, and his supposedly pro-Israel policy instincts are not having much of a bearing on his decision making.
While Trump’s purely political framework for Israel is not new, he has recently introduced a new and more worrisome aspect into his approach, which is using Israel as a vehicle for validating his decisions that are completely outside of Israel’s realm. Trump has intermittently pointed to Israel’s wall – though it is unclear to which one he is referring – as a justification for his own preference of building a wall along the southern border with Mexico, which Netanyahu welcomed in a tweet at the very beginning of the Trump presidency. But as the American government remains shut down over Trump’s demand for over $5 billion dollars in wall funding, he has upped his references to Israel in justifying his behavior. In an even starker and stranger example, when queried about a Washington Post report that he has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the details of his one-on-one conversations with Vladimir Putin since becoming president and asked what he talked about with his Russian counterpart, Trump responded, “We were talking about Israel and the security of Israel and lots of other things.” Whether or not this is true, it is telling that Trump immediately turned to Israel as the means by which to inoculate himself from criticism. We are moving from a world in which Trump views his Israel policy as being only about whether it benefits him politically to a world in which Israel is trotted out as a justification for why he is advocating politically unpopular positions or behaving suspiciously in his personal interactions.
Trump has always been deeply transactional, which is why there were reasons from before he was even elected to be wary of how Israel would fare under his fickle whims untethered from core principles. But his recent decisions and references to Israel go beyond an emotionless transactionalism, and suggest that he will not only subject Israel to a political cost-benefit analysis, but weaponize Israel itself for his own political gain. As much as Israel has been intimately connected in the eyes of many to the Trumpian political project, it is difficult to see how Israel gains in any way from the new connections being forged now by the president directly.