columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Is Trump really abandoning Israel?

His remarks about the war on Hamas are spun in a way that recalls every previous controversy about things he’s said—and with just as much accuracy.

U.S. President Donald Trump carry a speech during an official welcoming ceremony on his arrival in Israel at Ben-Gurion International Airport, May, 22 2017. Credit: Muhammad Aamir Sumsum/Shutterstock.
U.S. President Donald Trump carry a speech during an official welcoming ceremony on his arrival in Israel at Ben-Gurion International Airport, May, 22 2017. Credit: Muhammad Aamir Sumsum/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Has Donald Trump turned on Israel? That’s the question some people have been asking in the wake of an interview he gave to Israel Hayom. Trump’s presidency was the friendliest to Israel of any in history. But the interview became fodder for the latest controversy generated by something he has said with some willing to interpret it as evidence that he has allowed his personal dislike of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impact his attitude towards the Jewish state.

While speaking of Israel’s war on Hamas, he was quoted as saying the following: “You have to finish up your war. To finish it up. You gotta get it done. And, I am sure you will do that. And we gotta get to peace, we can’t have this going on.”

Trump also criticized the way Israel has been allowing itself to be portrayed in the international press, saying that by distributing video and photos of its strikes on terrorist targets in Gaza that it was hurting itself: “Israel has to get better with the promotional and with the public relations because right now they’re really being hurt very badly. I think in a public relations sense.”

He then went into specifics:

“I think Israel made a very big mistake. I wanted to call and say don’t do it. These photos and shots. I mean, moving shots of bombs being dropped into buildings in Gaza. And I said, Oh, that’s a terrible portrait. It’s a very bad picture for the world. The world is seeing this. … Every night, I would watch buildings pour down on people. It would say it was given by the Defense Ministry, and said whoever’s providing that that’s a bad image. Go and do what you have to do. But you don’t do that. And I think that’s one of the reasons that there has been a lot of kickback. If people didn’t see that, every single night I’d watch and every single one of those. … And I think Israel wanted to show that it’s tough, but sometimes you shouldn’t be doing that. … Israel has to be very careful because you’re losing a lot of the world, you’re losing a lot of support, you have to finish up, you have to get the job done. And you have to get on to peace, to get on to a normal life for Israel, and for everybody else.”

What did he mean?

That was portrayed by some news outlets critical of Israel, like The New York Times, as well as some that are supportive of it, as his abandoning the cause of Israel. That was the way the two Israel Hayom journalists who conducted the interview seemed to interpret the remarks. My former colleague John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, agreed, saying that Trump’s rhetoric was not dissimilar to that of President Joe Biden, who, he said, at least was also still supplying Israel with arms while creating a “a sense of instability in the relationship between the United States and Israel” with highly critical rhetoric. He believes that Trump’s comments “exacerbated that instability.”

It is entirely reasonable to question whether a second Trump presidency would be as supportive of Israel as the first. It’s also worth asking whether he might be influenced by some figures on the right who are either clearly unsupportive of Israel, such as former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, or right-wing talker Candace Owens, who has crossed over into open antisemitism.

But I believe those jumping to conclusions about the meaning of this interview are misinterpreting Trump’s words.

It’s just as easy to see the comments about finishing up the war as Trump taking the opposite stance of Biden, who has been trying to stop Israel from completing the destruction of the Hamas terrorist organization’s military power by taking their last bastion in Rafah. Trump seems to be urging them to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal and to do it as soon as possible.

Rather than joining the crowd of those bashing Israel for attacking Hamas strongholds in the Gaza Strip, the former president and certain Republican candidate in November may again be doing the opposite. It can be argued, as David Friedman, Trump’s U.S. ambassador to Israel, sees it, that he’s just telling the Israelis to stop being so transparent about their military efforts and to pay more attention—as they should—to how their justified war is being portrayed in a hostile international press. Indeed, given Trump’s record on the Middle East, that would be the simplest way to make sense of his latest remarks.

Falling for Trump’s game again

But more than that, those who are taking deep dives into the interview and trying to use it as a way to predict what will happen if he wins the 2024 election are simply doing what the press always does to Trump utterances: taking them far too seriously altogether.

It’s been nearly nine years since that day in June 2015 when Donald Trump came down the escalator at his eponymous tower in New York City and into our lives, and yet many of us have learned nothing about him in all that time. That is most true of the chattering classes who for the most part regarded his entry into politics with horror and have clearly never recovered from the trauma his political success inflicted upon them.

Throughout the ups and downs of all that followed—his free-flowing comments about events of the day, grandiose statements without fact-checking and anything else that popped into his head—have prompted reactions that followed a consistent pattern. Trump says something that is viewed by many as outrageous, inappropriate or troubling. The press reacts with horror, with his opponents and critics providing detailed analyses of why it was so wrong and the long-term consequences. More than that, they always seem to speak or write with the expectation that this gaffe, blunder or atrocious broadside will cause Trump’s followers and supporters to finally see him for who he is and abandon him.

Despite those apocalyptic expectations and no matter how outraged some people are about him, these incidents always amount to nothing. Trump laughs and moves on. His supporters are either unmoved or enjoy the way that he can drive his opponents off the deep end at the drop of a hat. Critics are left fulminating but still waiting in watchful expectation that some future utterance will provide the proof that will destroy him.

After almost a decade of this routine, you’d think that some of those who react in this way would finally catch on to what he’s doing.

Trump has no filter. He will say anything that he thinks at any given moment and doesn’t deeply consider the implications of his words, often out of pure disinterest. More than that, he often speaks in this manner deliberately to cause outrage or get under the skin of his opponents. He is not so much providing commentary or analysis in the way that public figures generally do, as he trolls the media, the political establishment and everyone who despises him. The half of the country that supports him is delighted by his ability to so upset the people they believe hate them as much as they do Trump.

The point that too many people seem to forget or simply don’t want to accept is that Trump speaks in a manner completely different from any other politician.

Whether good, bad or indifferent, almost everyone else in the governing class acts as if they believe that what public figures say matters desperately and therefore attempt to speak in a manner in which their comments are carefully prepared. They try—successfully or not—to convey exactly what they mean in order to avoid confusion and send clear messages to friends and foes.

When they go off-script, speak in haste or bungle the speeches prepared for them by aides and handlers—or even worse, say what is really on their minds but which they didn’t want the public to know—we call it a “gaffe.” We then expect the offender to either apologize for their words or retract them, and expect some serious consequences for speaking out of turn or saying something that offends.

Seriously, but not literally

Trump doesn’t play by those rules and, contrary to the expectations of just about everyone who covers politics, for the most part, it hasn’t hurt him. In fact, his ability to drive the political class crazy is a strength, not a weakness.

As journalist Salena Zito wrote in one of the most insightful pieces of commentary ever published, “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

That’s as true today as when she first wrote it in The Atlantic in 2016, but somehow much of the country seems to not have learned it or quickly forget it the next time he says something controversial. Whether it concerns comments or gestures, treating anything he does in the way we should judge the carefully considered actions and statements that, for example, come out of the Biden administration with respect to Israel or any other issue is a glaring mistake. Good or bad, it won’t have much impact on what he says next week, let alone how he might govern next year.

Moreover, Trump’s contempt for the press and the inside-the-Beltway luminaries and so-called experts has only grown over the years.

The unprecedented soft coup attempt in the form of the Russian collusion hoax by which the political and intelligence establishment sought to overturn the 2016 result made it difficult for him to govern. The conduct of many of those same forces, coupled with Silicon Valley oligarchs to ensure his defeat in 2020 by means both fair and foul, further embittered him and led to his ill-judged actions that challenged the election results and culminated in the disgraceful U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. The subsequent efforts of Democrats to imprison or knock him off the ballot in 2024 with a banana republic-style lawfare campaign has caused Trump and much of the Republican Party to simply dismiss the corporate media’s coverage of his campaign.

All of which makes any analysis of virtually anything Trump says a fool’s errand, and that’s just the way he likes it.

Pondering the future

We do well to wonder whether the turn against Israel on the part of some on the right, like Carlson and Owens, is having any impact on him. Carlson has been seen socializing with the Trump clan and seemed to have his ear while he was in the White House. But he also had no impact on his policies towards Israel or Iran. There is a big difference between Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, and Carlson’s and Owens’s more isolationist “America only” attitude that is also inherently hostile to Israel. Carlson is still more court jester to Trump than adviser, and the toxic Owens will have no more influence on him than the equally antisemitic Kanye West, whom he foolishly invited to dinner at Mar-a-lago in 2022.

Nor do I think that his feud with Netanyahu will necessarily influence policy towards the Jewish state even if both are leading their respective countries next January.

Everything with Trump is transactional, and he wrongly interpreted the prime minister’s congratulating Biden—as he was obligated to do—on winning in 2020 as a personal insult. But Trump is always ready to forgive former foes or critics if they bend the knee to him. If he wins in November, then Netanyahu will go back to flattering Trump as he did while the former president was moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan; supporting the normalization between Israel and more moderate Muslim countries; and bypassing the Palestinians to push for peace with the Arab and Muslim world. If so, all will probably be well between the two men.

Still, friends of Israel aren’t wrong to be disappointed that Trump hasn’t done more to be supportive of the Jewish state since Oct. 7.

Even if he wants Israel to win the war, he should have been speaking out consistently on the issue. Instead, most of his comments were self-referential. His claim that if he were president—or if Biden had adopted his policies on Iran, Israel and the Palestinians—the current war would never have happened might be true. But the atrocities of Oct. 7 and the subsequent surge in antisemitism should have been a moment for him to transcend his impulse to see everything as being about himself. Again, it’s always foolish to expect Trump to be anything other than the person he’s always been.

The only way to judge the Trump-Biden matchup with respect to their Israel policies remains their records while they were in the White House. Given the current difficulties with Washington, as Biden pressures Israel to stop the war and let Hamas win, the notion that there is no difference between the two doesn’t seem sensible.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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