By Neil J. Young, columnist
When asked on Monday if the White House would call on Israel to show restraint after its forces shot and killed dozens of Palestinian protesters in Gaza, a spokesman for President Donald Trump said, “Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response. … Israel has a right to defend itself.”
That response ― and the president’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem ― signaled how far Trump has moved from where he once stood on Israel. During the 2016 campaign, Trump had billed himself as a very different Republican presidential candidate, and on the Israel-Palestine question, it seemed like he might be right.
In a town hall hosted by MSNBC in February 2016, Trump said he’d be a “neutral guy” when negotiating the conflict, a noticeable break from how past Republican ― and Democratic ― presidents have pledged deference to Israel’s side in negotiations. “There has to be a certain amount of surprise, unpredictability,” Trump said, presenting the Mideast conflict as a real estate squabble the deal-maker candidate alone could sort out.
Two months earlier, in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump was the only one of 14 Republican candidates who would not promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or indicate whether he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s official capital.
A candidate who railed against America’s supposed P.C. culture, Trump took early positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that showed he might buck the GOP’s own political correctness on Israel. As president, however, Trump has fully embraced the party’s approach to Israel, pushing it in a hard-line direction advocated by conservative extremists in both the U.S. and Israel.
If Trump has been a different president on Israel, it has only been in disastrous ways. Rather than bringing peace and stability to the region as he boasted he would do, Trump is inflaming the conflict by throwing unquestioning support to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s radical agenda. He is doing so with the full endorsement of a Republican Party that has transformed itself over recent decades into a hard-right backer of Israel. And he’s doing it without significant pushback from an American public seemingly resigned to the conflict and generally indifferent to Palestinians’ deaths.
Ronald Reagan, who present-day Republicans like to wrongly characterize as an unyielding supporter of Israel, instead called on Israel to freeze new settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1982 and considered imposing sanctions after Israel attacked West Beirut. Following an eruption of violence in the West Bank between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli soldiers in 1987, the Reagan White House urged the two sides to “step back from confrontation.”
“Both sides share a responsibility for this violence,” a Reagan spokesman declared, before condemning the Israeli occupation as damaging “the self-respect and world opinion of the Israeli people.”
With an evangelical-heavy staff, the George W. Bush administration took a more aggressive stance in supporting Israel, a move that also differentiated Bush from his father, who had often been critical of Israel while president.
Now, the Trump White House is moving even further rightward, actively stoking conflict in the region through its policies and its “blank check” approach to Israel. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have long said they would move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but repeatedly passed on the chance to do so, citing “national security” concerns. Trump’s decision to move forward with the relocation, therefore, marks a dramatic break from previous presidents’ measured approach and a reckless provocation. Far more than offering itself as an ally, the United States has signaled it will tolerate anything Israel does.
That’s a dangerous proposition as long as Netanyahu is in charge. Just as Vladimir Putin understood that Trump’s unstable personality and malleable mind could benefit Russia’s global agenda should he become president, Netanyahu recognizes that Trump’s attraction to chaos and violence allows Israel to pursue a path for itself no other U.S. president would allow. And with end-times pastors puffing up the president with their talk that he is fulfilling biblical prophecy in Israel, Trump and his supporters will view escalating violence in the region not as a failure of his leadership ― or a threat to America’s security and global standing ― but as proof of the historic nature of his presidency.
On Fox News on Tuesday, one guest after another explained that Americans shouldn’t worry about the dead in Gaza, even the children, because they were just suicidal props put there by Hamas. That’s a talking point in heavy rotation in conservative circles, but it’s also a view shared by many Americans who don’t watch Fox.
While it’s certainly true that Hamas uses human shields, that fact doesn’t explain why Americans remain so unbothered by civilian deaths in Gaza and the West Bank. In another part of the world ― say, North Korea or Iraq ― civilians sent to their deaths by a terroristic state would surely be viewed by Americans as innocent, or at least pitiable, victims of a brutal regime. But not in Gaza.
Given that, Trump may find he has more leeway to pursue an aggressive course in the Middle East than he does in other places. Still, the American people are unlikely to support the catastrophic conflagration that will play out if he does not adjust his foreign policy there.
Trump told Americans he would be a different type of president when it came to Israel. As with all things in this presidency, the differences have been devastating.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”