What Can Trump Gain From Israeli-American Voters?
1. Dissecting Trump’s speech
For about an hour on Saturday, Donald Trump stood on stage at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida, and provided a crowd of some 3,500 Israeli Americans with the evening’s entertainment. He praised the hosts, shared stories about life as the most powerful man in the world (from the official White House transcript: “So I call: ‘Hi, King. What’s up? What’s happening?’ He said, ‘I wanted to tell you I didn’t like you doing that with Israel.’ ‘Oh, man! I wish I called you back a little sooner. I’m sorry.’”). He went after his Democratic rivals, and he even played the role of emcee, calling guest speakers to the stage and providing a truly moving moment when he warmly embraced the Israeli Shalva band, which is made up of young adults with disabilities.
As Trump walked off stage on his way to the Air Force One flight back to Washington, it was clear that the president didn’t make the trip to the annual conference of the Israeli-American Council to deliver a policy speech or to present any new thoughts or ideas about Israel, its relations with the United States or his plans for the future of this relationship.
Instead, Trump opted for a campaign-style speech, ranging from current affairs to recent unemployment numbers. He went through the Israel-related highlights of his presidency: relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, nixing the Iran nuclear deal, hitting the Palestinians with aid cuts and acknowledging Israel’s rule over the Golan Heights. He proudly concluded that “The Jewish state has never had a better friend in the White House than your president, Donald J. Trump.”
As always, Trump knew what he was doing. The audience, waving Israeli and American flags and leaping to their feet at every applause line, responded with shouts of “four more years” and even broke into spontaneous booing when Trump mentioned “crooked Hillary.”
2. Trump’s blind spot on anti-Semitic stereotypes
But as Israeli Americans in the audience applauded, Jewish Democrats across the country watched with dread as Trump, again, hinted at stereotypes of Jews that have proven destructive throughout thousands of years of Jewish history.
First, there was the claim of disloyalty, aimed again at Jewish Americans who voted for Democratic presidential candidates. “So many of you voted for people in the last administration. Someday you’ll have to explain that to me, because I don’t think they liked Israel too much. I’m sorry.” He later went on to claim that “you have people that are Jewish people, that are great people—they don’t love Israel enough. You know that.” These lines follow Trump’s comments last August that Jews who vote for Democrats are “disloyal” to Israel.
At the time, Trump got clobbered for echoing anti-Semitic canards regarding Jews’ disloyalty, but Trump chose to keep to his guns. In his Saturday address in Florida, he once again tried to make the case that American Jews must vote based on the interests of the state of Israel (and that he is the best candidate to advance these interests).
Then there was another Trump classic: the conflation of Jews and wealthy business people. “A lot of you are in the real estate business, because I know you very well. You’re brutal killers. Not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me; you have no choice. You’re not going to vote for Pocahontas, I can tell you that. You’re not going to vote for the wealth tax,” Trump said, succeeding at insulting both Jews and native Americans in one sentence.
This, too, is not a new theme for Trump. Look back at his first speech as a presidential candidate to a crowd at the Republican Jewish Coalition, where he told the Jewish audience they are unlikely to vote for him “because I don’t want your money.”
Why does he keep on doing this?
It could be, as writer Yair Rosenberg suggested, that Trump just doesn’t get it, that he views anti-Semitic stereotypes as admirable traits. In other words, he thinks he’s praising the Jews.
Or, perhaps, it’s simply the echo chamber Trump operates in. He probably never heard any pushback from the Jewish members inside his closest circle (son-in-law Jared Kushner, top adviser Stephen Miller). And he doesn’t feel any resistance at the Jewish events he chooses to attend, either with top Jewish donors who would rather not cross him or, as in the most recent case, with Israeli Americans who do not share the same sensitivities as American Jews.
3. Trump is no Santa for Bibi
For the past three years, the Trump administration has served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s treasure chest, offering one gift after another, handing out valuable policy gems that other Israeli leaders could only dream of. This stream of gestures seemed to increase whenever Netanyahu faced elections in Israel.
Perhaps this is why some in Israel had expected Trump to use his speech Saturday to bestow yet another gift on Netanyahu, one that could have proven to be extremely timely. With only days to go before Israel will be forced into another round of elections, a meaningful gesture from Trump could have helped Bibi tip the scale, demonstrating how only he can deliver diplomatic achievements and therefore he should lead the next national unity government.
Specifically, Netanyahu has been lobbying the Trump administration on two issues: One is a green light for Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, the most western strip of land in the West Bank, running along the border between Israel and Jordan. The other is a presidential nod for a future mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Israel.
Trump, in his Florida speech, gave nothing. He did not mention either topic nor did he make any statement that could be translated into political currency in Israel.
In fact, during his hour-long speech, Trump did not mention Netanyahu by name even once.
Is this a sign that the Trump-Netanyahu bromance has reached its end?
Perhaps. But it is more likely yet another example of the president’s Middle East fatigue. With a year to go, Trump may feel that he has done enough on the Israeli-Palestinian front, that he reaped whatever political gains this policy has to offer. Look at his mention of the future peace plan his administration may be rolling out soon. Once this was the cornerstone of his Middle East policy, important enough to be entrusted in the hands of his favorite son-in-law Kushner. Now, the “deal of the century” is no more than an unscripted line thrown out in his speech. “I used to hear the toughest of all deals is peace with Israel and the Palestinians. They say that’s the toughest of all deals. But if Jared Kushner can’t do it, it can’t be done,” he said. And that really doesn’t sound like Trump is putting any political capital behind the prospects of a pre-election major move involving Israel.
4. How do Republican Jews see Trump’s speech?
While Jewish Democrats watched Trump on Saturday and were horrified (or acted as if they were horrified) by what they’ve heard, Jewish Republicans watched the same speech, some of them in person, and reached opposite conclusions.
Matt Brooks, leader of the Republican Jewish Coalition, took issue with the Democratic claim that Trump was echoing anti-Semitic stereotypes when discussing Jews and wealth.
To all those who are saying @realDonaldTrump trafficked in
anti-semitic tropes in his speech last night by talking about how the Dems will tax them see their wealth evaporate- get over yourselves. He literally talks about this at every rally!
— Matt Brooks (@mbrooksrjc) December 8, 2019
Seth Mandel, executive editor of the Washington Examiner commented on Trump’s questioning of Jews who voted for previous administrations who had been hostile to Israel.
The funniest part is Obama coming into office at the beginning and *literally* telling Jewish leaders that ‘no daylight’ had failed and it was time for some space. Denying that he did what he said he’d do is… a living, I guess?
— Seth Mandel (@SethAMandel) December 8, 2019
In other words, where Democrats see dog whistles, peddling in anti-Semitic stereotypes and an overall lack of sensitivity to Jewish concerns by Trump, Republican Jews see a president calling out Democrats for not being supportive of Israel and, as usual, being an equal opportunity offender.
5. An audience of two
The only question left is: Was it worth the schlep?
Did Trump really gain anything by going down to Florida and spending valuable time with Israeli Americans?
The Israeli ex-pat community makes up anywhere from 300,000 to 800,000 members. Most are concentrated in New York and Los Angeles, rendering them useless in terms of electoral strategy.
So why bother with this tiny sliver of a constituency?
First, because the optics matter. Trump has effectively been shut out of mainstream Jewish American circles. Now he has found a niche (alongside that of Orthodox Jewish Americans) that welcomes him with standing ovations and chants “four more years” whenever he pauses in his speech.
Second, and perhaps more important, is the audience of two standing on the stage, introducing Trump and bankrolling the organization that hosted him: Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.
Trump went a little out of his way to show up at the gathering they organized, and who knows, maybe they’ll go the extra mile and be just as generous with their political donations as they were in the 2016 election cycle.