Many fear that a Trump presidency will, by default, favor Netanyahu and his policies. But if Trump’s past statements on Israel are precedent, what will matter more is whether the ‘dealmaker’ gets to broker the ultimate deal.
We’re not even a week in, and the panic is palpable. “Trump Election Already Bad News for Palestinians,” reads one headline. Settlement construction will surely spike. “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”
But for even the most casual observer of the Middle East, these pronouncements are nothing new. And despite the official statements from Jerusalem and Ramallah, the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority know it, too: when it comes to the Middle East’s oldest conflict, Donald Trump, for all his swagger, can do little more than tiptoe around the status quo.
His promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem? His advisors have already begun to walk that one back. And even if they didn’t, Palestinians know that the move would do little to change the status quo on the ground in Jerusalem. The Qalandiya checkpoint, with its gun towers and retina scans, would still be there. And East Jerusalem, home to some half a million Palestinians who once generated some 40 percent of the Palestinian economy, would still be walled off from the West Bank.
OK, you say. So Trump isn’t as bold as he thinks, and this conflict has made humbler men of every president since Truman. But couldn’t Trump further embolden the Israeli Right, giving more cover to the Netanyahu government’s expansionist policies?
Sure. But does Netanyahu really need Trump to do that? And anyway, in an era of inexplicable outcomes, why waste our time looking for answers to these questions? Shouldn’t we, like everybody else in the battered mainstream, be asking new questions?
Donald Trump. That’s who.
On Thursday morning, the Washington Post reported that Schumer, a Democrat from New York and the rank and file’s top pick to lead his party in the Senate, had backed the representative from Minnesota to head the Democratic National Committee.
Never mind that Schumer’s support came on the heels of a similar endorsement by Bernie Sanders, who had been summarily dismissed by the Democratic establishment in the presidential primary. What’s really news here is that the same New York senator who said Israel should “strangle” Gaza just cast his lot with a Muslim-American who, since 2009, has been to Gaza three times—and has publicly called for an end to Israel’s siege.
That kind of alliance isn’t supposed to happen in U.S. politics. If there was one tried-and-true rule in Congress, it was that Israel’s supporters couldn’t break rank on any issue that mattered to its prime minister, even if it meant contradicting the Commander-in-Chief.
Case in point: Back in 2015, Schumer himself sided with Benjamin Netanyahu against President Obama’s Iran deal. And the spectacle of Netanyahu’s standing ovation before Congress, in which he all but mocked the administration’s signature foreign policy initiative, brought into plain view Obama’s contempt for the Israeli prime minister.
A ‘true friend’ of Israel?
All of which brings us back to Trump. He’s vowed to mend trust with Netanyahu, who of course has wasted no time naming the president-elect “a true friend” of Israel. But the reality is much more complex.
There’s the indelicate matter of Trump’s bigotry, for example.
Whether he actually believed it or was just pandering to his supporters—who include none other than former Ku Klux Klan “grand wizard” David Duke—Trump’s final television ad before the election was roundly criticized for its not so subtle anti-Semitic trope. That the ad resonated with his base, or at least didn’t elicit the kind of shock it warranted, suggests that Trump’s stance toward the Jewish state is hardly motivated by his constituents.
Instead, it might trace back to one of two, less savory things. One is something Evangelical Christians have long espoused—the equally anti-Semitic belief that Israel’s survival matters only as a sign of Christ’s second coming. The idea, for the uninitiated, is that, in the biblical land of Israel, non-believers, Jews included, will be cast to hell in a final act of apocalyptic genocide. (If that sounds outlandish, read what Rabbi Michael Lerner had to say about Christian Zionists in this 2007 conversation with Bill Moyers.)
Another, more plausible explanation is that Trump simply doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. This, after all, is the man who, without a hint of sarcasm, told an audience of Jews last December: “I’m a negotiator—like you folks.” Fortunately, at that same event, he was booed by the Republican Jewish Coalition, this time for refusing to commit—wait for it—to moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
The ‘ultimate deal’
Trump’s awkward rhetoric and policy flip-flops would be comical if they weren’t so dangerously unpredictable. But more to the point, for advocates on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seems next to impossible to identify a set of consistent policy stances on which to engage the man or his eventual administration.
There’s one exception, though. Listen closely, and you’ll hear that Trump has said one thing consistently about Israel-Palestine.
“If you’re a deal person,” the then-Republican frontrunner told NBC’s Meet the Press in February, “the ultimate deal is that deal.”
When, just two days after his election, Trump used that same phrase, “ultimate deal,” in an exclusive interview with the Wall Street Journal, it didn’t sound like a newly scripted talking point—because it wasn’t. It sounded like something Trump actually believed, something that he, in all his narcissism, just might obsess about for the next four years.
After all, who could deny Donald J. Trump a deal?
The two states of Trump
In what was billed as a tell-all interview with The New Yorker last July, Tony Schwartz, who ghostwrote Trump’s The Art of the Deal, said two things that matter about the man with whom Israelis and Palestinians must now contend. The first is that Trump’s ego is boundless (“If he could run for emperor of the world, he would.”). And the second is that he “has no attention span.”
Taken together, these attributes don’t jive. But individually, these are the two states of Donald Trump: He’s a huckster who can’t keep it together long enough to sell anything other than his set of knives. But, by God, being President of the United States just won’t cut it. This knife salesman wants to be Emperor of us all.
That includes Israel. Remember that awkward tirade to the Republican Jewish Coalition? Trump signaled something that night that Netanyahu seems to have forgotten. Speaking to a roomful of Israel supporters, the Republican candidate put forward a dare: “You’re not going to support me,” he said, “because I don’t want your money.”
It was another thinly veiled expression of bigotry. But it also belies the point being made by those who fear that a Trump presidency will, by default, favor Netanyahu and his policies. If Trump’s past statements on Israel—and his insatiable need to control any conversation—are precedent, what will matter more is whether the man who likes to think of himself as the consummate dealmaker gets to broker the ultimate deal.
As he pursues that obsession—and once he engages on Israel-Palestine, Trump’s ego won’t allow him not to obsess about it—advocates for Palestinian rights, including those on the Israeli left, would do well to put forward policy proposals that require “no attention span” of the man (proposals like this one to open the Gaza port). As they do so, the half of America that remains sickened by Trump’s election will continue to coalesce around people like Keith Ellison.
Although Ellison’s priority, in this time of national crisis, shouldn’t be Palestine, the issue will come up just as surely as it has for any American president in the last seven decades. And when it does, Palestinians will have an advocate at the helm of the Democratic party.
If all of this sounds too hopeful too soon, it shouldn’t keep us from challenging our automatic impulse to loathe what comes next.
Yes, the election of Donald J. Trump has triggered a kind of “fight or flight” survival instinct among those of us who oppose him. We have overrun the Canadian immigration website and amassed in defiant protests across major American cities—complete with chants of “not my president.”
Yes, the reactions are only as dramatic as the threat. We know that post-election counts show Trump was voted into office by less than a third of eligible American voters, and we know that, what Trump lacked in numbers, his supporters have more than made up for in bluster, vandalism, and hate speech.
And yes, as the Trump era comes barreling at us, it is especially difficult for Jewish- and Arab-Americans to see beyond defensive tactics, for it is our personal safety, and that of our families, that is under threat.
But as with any threat of this magnitude, there is invariably an opening—an Achilles heel—that, once identified, can be exploited in the service of something more than self-defense. That possibility seems especially auspicious when it comes to Palestine.