Israel turns 70 this year. To mark the anniversary, JTA’s Ron Kampeas describes the U.S.-Israel friendship through portraits of all 13 presidents who have been in office during the Jewish state’s history. For other articles in the series, click here.
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(JTA) — Donald Trump, the unlikeliest of Republican presidents, has gotten a reputation for unpredictability. But if he is consistent on one thing, it is his campaign promises. He tends to keep them.
On Dec. 6, 2017, he made good on his promise to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
“While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver,” Trump said. “Today, I am delivering.”
Trump not only delivers; he delivers with a vengeance. Recognizing Jerusalem and setting a schedule to move the embassy would have been enough for his Jewish base, but Trump accelerated the process and the embassy opened, albeit in temporary quarters, on May 14, 2018 — the secular 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding.
The same goes for his other Israel-related pledges. Trump promised to block Israel-hostile actions at the United Nations; his ambassador to the body until last year, Nikki Haley, was perhaps the most proactively pro-Israel envoy since Daniel Patrick Moynihan under Gerald Ford. Haley forced the United Nations to withdraw reports critical of Israel and stopped a Palestinian from assuming a senior position in the body because the same courtesy has yet to be afforded to an Israeli.
Trump last year slashed most funding to the Palestinian Authority, citing its subsidies for families of Palestinians who attack Israelis, and, working through Haley, cut U.S. funding for UNRWA, the U.N. agency that provides relief to Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Trump said he would reconsider the Iran nuclear deal; he pulled the U.S. from the deal in May 2018 and reinstituted sanctions in November.
“With President Trump, I have fewer disagreements,” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said in 2018 when he was asked to compare his interactions with Obama and Clinton. “It’s fair to say I don’t have any disagreements.”
Trump wants to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks, and has entrusted the task to a team of three, all with solid pro-Israel ties, led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
In the second year of his presidency, Trump was bolder and more confident in his role, and is distanced himself from the foreign policy mavens who insist the United States must ensure stability worldwide. For example, in December of 2018, he launched a pullout from Syria of the 2,000 or so troops there training and advising U.S.-friendly rebel forces.
“It is very costly for our country, and it helps other countries more than it helps us,” Trump said in April of 2018 of the U.S. presence in Syria. “I want to get out, I want to bring our troops back home.”
The absence of U.S. troops in Syria is not a prospect Israel relishes. Russia has joined with Iran and Hezbollah — both deadly enemies to Israel — in propping up the Assad regime in Syria. Israel is adamantly opposed to a long-term Iranian presence in Syria, and to an emboldened Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that launched a war against Israel in 2006.
Now that Syria’s civil war is winding down, the absence of a U.S. presence would give Russia, Iran and Hezbollah more room to consolidate their presence there. Already the prospect of an Israeli conflict with not just Iran but possibly with Russia is looming in Syria.
Trump’s base on the isolationist right has made it eminently clear it wants out of Syria, and Trump is being responsive. The same loyalty to his base has led many American Jews, however, to accuse him of failing to condemn — and at times encourage — white supremacists.
The most searing moment was in August 2017, when it took Trump days to unequivocally condemn the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, an event that culminated in a car-ramming attack on counterprotesters that killed one. Trump said there were “very fine” people on both sides, drawing rebukes from across the Jewish spectrum — including, unprecedentedly, from AIPAC and even the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The memories of Trump’s equivocation at the time of the Charlottesville attack fueled the local Jewish response in Pittsburgh in October of 2018, when an anti-Semitic gunman massacred 11 Jewish worshippers at The Tree of Life synagogue complex. Local Jewish leaders said they would prefer Trump not visit; when he did anyway, some Pittsburgh Jews turned out to protest. The task of welcoming Trump fell to Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, who later thanked Trump for “such a strong statement in condemning anti-Semitism.”
The gunman, while no Trump fan, had embraced a falsehood that the president had been peddling — that Jewish billionaire George Soros was behind a migrant caravan heading to the U.S. border, and that the migrants planned to ‘invade” the United States.
Four months later, in his State of the Union address in February of 2019, Trump made the repudiation of anti-Semitism a central theme, tying together the animosities of Iran’s government with the hate that spurred the Pittsburgh shooter. He also invited two survivors of the shooting, Judah Samet, 81, and first responder Timothy Matson. Reactions to the event underlined the polarization over Trump among Jews, in the United States and beyond. Trump supporters regard him as a strong friend of Israel and good friend to Jews (Netanyahu used a photo of Trump on his own campaign posters). His detractors, meanwhile, see him as a threat to their Jewish values and safety.