Taking Trump Seriously on Israel

By Jordan Chandler Hirsch

Commentary Magazine

April 15, 2016

The Middle East is in anarchy, and in some ways Israel has never faced greater regional peril. As president, Donald Trump would likely seek to knock down the pillars of the U.S.-Israel alliance.

He said otherwise at the AIPAC Policy Conference in March, calling Israel “our strategic ally” and “cultural brother.” But his speech there surely represented a walkback of his genuine views. The AIPAC appearance was alien not only because Trump used a teleprompter but also because he had made his real position on the U.S. role in the region unmistakable in debate after debate.

Outside of vowing to “bomb the hell” out of ISIS, the GOP front-runner is a belligerent “America First” isolationist. He promises that “we will not be ripped off any more” by “tremendously rich” countries that leech off our military might. NATO is “obsolete”; “what the hell do we care” if Russia returns to the Middle East? It’s time for us to “take care of ourselves.” These notions represent something close to principle. As far back as 1990, he told Playboy that America is “laughed at around the world” for “defending wealthy nations for nothing” while allies “are making billions screwing us.”

When Trump lists the erstwhile partners guilty of such grifting—Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia—he mostly excludes Israel. But as the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, Jerusalem is only one breath away. Any inclination to back Israel would have to override decades-long inclinations on Trump’s part and would violate one of the few consistent stands he has taken. Trump’s gut comments—the best guide to what he would do as president—indicate that the Jewish state would fit too seamlessly in his litany of moochers to escape his gaze.

Trump might first turn that gaze to the moribund Israeli–Palestinian peace process, where he promises there is “nothing that I would rather do” than strike a deal. He mentions this aspiration so frequently that he would likely follow one presidential tradition worth breaking: attempting to ride the conflict to a legacy-clinching moonshot. For Israel, that is a familiar path to unilateral concessions and more war. Trump would make it even more perilous by being a “neutral guy.” If Washington assumed that stance, Jerusalem would have no major power behind it—even as the Palestinians deployed the Islamic world and a growing cadre of European capitals. And if talks floundered, Trump would likely blame Israel. “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal,” he said last year, “whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things.” Any difficulties in capturing his golden deal could lead an enraged Trump to punish Israel. Trumpian retribution could lead to a global sanctions campaign that would cripple Israel’s economy or to security arrangements that would leave extremists in charge of the West Bank and Jerusalem with little power to respond.

Trump’s views on the broader region offer little comfort. He wonders why we should care if Russia resurrects itself as a great power in the Middle East, and he speaks with sweeping bigotry about Islam. His frustrations with America’s recent fortunes in that neighborhood are understandable. But abandoning the field to Moscow and alienating local partners would only spur on the chaos now threatening Europe and Africa, making Israel’s borders less stable than ever. And, most dangerous for Jerusalem, it would embolden Iran. Trump has repeatedly suggested that he would uphold the Iran nuclear agreement (despite calling it a terrible deal) and has complained that Tehran cannot use its Obama-granted sanctions relief to buy American missiles and planes. Given new leeway, and tacit U.S. support, the Islamic Republic would double down on its wars against Sunni powers and probe Israel’s defenses with greater daring. And it would advance its nuclear program to the point of full immunity and no return.

Trump’s impulses suggest he would depart the Middle East as conclusively as the British did following World War II—leaving the region without the presence of a major Western power for the first time in over a century. This is all the more alarming given his views on the U.S.-Israel defense relationship. Just before his AIPAC speech, Trump suggested that he would make Jerusalem pay for defense aid. “I think Israel,” he said, “can pay big league.” That may include renegotiating or canceling the Memorandum of Understanding, which underwrites the bulk of U.S. aid to Israel, or attempting to shed America’s commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge over its rivals. Even a modest reduction in defense partnership would leave Israel exposed at a moment of maximum Middle East bedlam and invite adversaries to ramp up the pressure. It would mean nothing less than cutting the cords on the alliance.

Trump may not follow through on anything he says; there is always the chance he is led, against his irritable mental gestures, toward sound policy. Yet the core menace of a Trump presidency to Israel is ultimately the menace it poses to America itself. Israel does not merely need guns and missiles, but the global armor of American leadership. A world in which the United States betrays bedrock alliances, cozies up with enemies, and raises the drawbridge is a world in which the Jewish state will struggle to endure.